Let's Talk About Saving the World with Author, Brian Selznick
Brian Selznick, welcome to the Bookaholic Podcast. Yeah, thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here with you. Yes, I am so glad you're here. You know, um, I got this book in the mail, big Tree, your Latest, and I thought, oh my goodness, it's gigantic. It's a tone. And, you know, and I was like, okay, well I'll just give it a try.
And I, I saw that it did have illustrations. I said, so maybe I can get through it pretty quickly. And um, so I took it and I started reading it. And I fell in love. Aww. I fell in love and I have finished it. I just got it the other day. I read and I finished it and it's one of those books that I do like this.
I'm holding it close into my heart because it is absolutely beautiful. Oh my God. It's beautiful. Thank you. Um, it's just in time for Earth Day later on here in the month, and I just do believe this is a beautiful volume to introduce children to or if I had any grandchildren to. Um, it's just beautiful and it's a classic book that every family should have on their bookshelf.
First of all. Um, you know, I can remember being a little girl and older people taking me around in their arms and showing me different trees and the leaves of the trees. Like, this is a maple leaf and this is a da da da and this is a pine tree, et cetera. And people, I think people still show their children's stuff, but maybe not leaves shapes because they don't know them.
They don't know them. And, uh, I think this book, it, it has many layers. I wanna talk about those layers and I think it can point us back to reconnecting with nature. Now, before we dive further into my just opinion of, of this wonderful book. I do wanna introduce my audience to you and, um, they are familiar with some of your work, probably particularly in the movie version of Hugo, which is from your book titled Hugo, the Invention, invention of Hugo Cabaret.
Yeah. Did I say all of that right? Yep. Yep. Absolutely. And I remember taking my sons, I remember my, my husband and I, taking our sons to see Hugo. Oh, that's so fantastic. Yes, yes. And, um, they're grown men now. So I guess that was many, many years ago now passed. Yes, time has passed, but that was a, a, a movie that we enjoyed it, you know, and taking our children to, and, um, That was famously done, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Correct. Yeah. Yeah. So that's, that's a little woo. Wow. That's fantastic. And this book, big Tree, it's really the concept of Steven Spielberg, right? Yeah, yeah. I, Steven Spielberg and maybe a production partner wanted to do a movie. Could you tell us about that? Yeah. Yeah, uh, Steven Spielberg and, uh, he was partnering with a producer named Chris Meledandri from Illumination Studios.
And, uh, Steven Spielberg had an idea and he wanted me to write this movie based on his idea. And he flew me across the country and I, you know, I was like, so nervous and so excited and couldn't believe it was happening. And, and the idea. That he had was to tell a story about nature from nature's point of view, because he was worried about the planet like, like so many of us are.
And yes, he realized he had never seen a movie that was told from nature's point of view, from the plant's point of view, right? And I thought to myself, well, maybe the reason we've never seen that is because you can't actually make a movie from the point of view of plants. Maybe it's a little too difficult, you know, plants don't faces.
And so it's a little challenging. Yes, but it was such an honor that he thought about me and the first conversation went so well. He invited me to come back the next month and I ended up getting the chance to be with him four times, and I began. I began to develop this, uh, story for a screenplay. I wasn't doing any art.
It was gonna be all designed by professional animators, so I was just writing right? But I came up with this idea to tell a story about two little Sycamore seeds, who I named Merwin and Louise, who would be set off into the world after, uh, being separated from their mommet tree, uh, as seeds are. And they would both be trying to find a safe place to grow.
While also beginning to realize that they might be responsible for having to save the entire planet in some fashion. Yes. Yes. And I decided to set it at the end of the Cretaceous era. Um, because that was the moment when the asteroid was coming to, uh, hit the planet that destroyed most life on earth. Yes.
And. It felt like a really good metaphor for the existential crisis that we're facing right now with the environment. Right, exactly. And the fact that we all, many of us feel very tiny and insignificant and unable to do anything and you know, pretty hopeless in a lot of ways. We, we might feel hopeless.
But I, I started wondering if I could tell a story about two, like literally tiny creatures, little beers. Yes. Yes. Who somehow find a way to connect with the bigger world, with the bigger community and, and actually do something cuz I, that, that's like, I tend to write. Stories that first are about helping me get through the day, like what is it that I need to learn?
Right? And, and like we all need, we all have a lot of things we need to learn, but for, yes, for me, especially when I began writing this and sort of the, the, the turn that it took when the pandemic hit, you know, I really needed to, to remain hopeful, right? Because right. So many things and so much trauma and grief and just horror that right.
It was really, it is really easy to, to, to be without hope or to think that you're without hope. Most definitely. Yeah. So for me, a lot of Big Tree was trying to remind myself that I, I need to remain. Hopeful. And so, yes. You know, so, so Spielberg and Meledandri were a amazing mentors and great sounding boards and they gave me incredible feedback and you know, and really when the pandemic hit, you know, it became very clear very quickly that the movie was never gonna happen.
Right. Reasons, you know, cuz the pandemic changed everything and a lot of things that were going stopped. Yes. And, but I had fallen in love with the characters. I had fallen in love with the story and, and then in the pandemic. This story about trying to be hopeful in the face of catastrophe suddenly felt like even more important.
Yes. And so I, I asked, uh, Spielberg and Meledandri, if I could turn the story into a book. And they were very enthusiastic and said yes. And so suddenly I got to illustrate the book. I realized I don't need to put faces on the seeds because I'm trying to base everything in science. And plants just don't have seeds, have faces, but they do have the ability to communicate.
So talking is okay because plants do communicate. So it was, for me, it was all about finding the right way. To anthropomorphize these little seeds so that I was being honest to the science while also bringing them a, a real sense, this is gonna sound ironic, but a real sense of humanity. Right? Because of course they are actually us, right?
They are, they are little sycamore seeds. Literally. Yes. But then they are us. Yes. And so, so the, the fact that this book exists. Itself feels like a miracle. Yes. And in a funny way, even though it started as a movie, I really think that this story was always meant to be a book. And so the fact that I got to the chance to figure that out, yes.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic, like I'm, I always like asking people what their silver lining is because not everyone, of course, not everyone thinks that they might have one, but I think for a lot of people there are. Weird, unexpectedly positive things that came out of the pandemic. And I think it's good to remember that that's okay.
Yes, correct. Yeah. And we, we talk about the pandemic a lot on this channel, um, because a lot of people wrote books during that era and um, yes, there have been unexpected blessings, believe it or not. That came through that pandemic, you know? Yeah. Yeah. And I, one of the things that we have talked about was the self-care aspect.
Mm-hmm. And making people more aware of, um, phrases such as microaggressions, narcissism, uh, impasse and those type of things. So yeah, I agree with you. Totally. And I'm so glad, I'm so glad that you, you sat down and asked yourself these questions each and every day because you truly. Did some soul searching and has brought a lot of beauty to us by this book.
You know, one of the things I get from this, and that pulled up my heartstrings first were the fact that these seeds were with their mom tree and they were a family. Yeah. You know, and, and Merwin had his heart set on taking care of his, uh, sister Louise. I mean, and so it. I, I got a lot out of this. Not from the, just the scientific and the nature and um, aspect, but there was a family aspect here too.
Yeah. Yes. And Merlin grew up, so to speak, and learned his lesson and, and, and Louise, she. It's kind of stopped being, she was never naive. You thought she was naive. She was never naive. She was always listening to that inner self. And then, um, oh, it's just so beautiful. I don't.
It's a beautiful family story. Thank you. And, um, I thought you were so smart when, and you go in the back of the book and it explains the, some of the scientific things, but when they were in a terrible mess in the water, uh, in a shell and the scientist appeared and I was like, oh my goodness. He's really explaining what we later know as.
You know, the fossils and all of those things and the, the different rocks that come up and the scientists now can look at them and tell what era they even came from. And they were like, well, we're the little scientists now doing all of this stuff to this, this shell to make it to be? Oh. And I was just, oh, I was just like, oh my goodness, this is just wonderful.
And um, what was the other thing? I think the other thing. Um, the butterfly was beautiful, but the ferns. Mm-hmm. And you know, when you're in school and you're learning about all these ancient eras, it's the fern that has always been there. Yeah. The fern was always around, you know, moss and ferns and all of these things.
So it just was quite powerful from that whole it. Aspect. It was a community, it was a whole community. And every time the mom tree, they talked about her bringing up the water to Oh, just beautiful. I just love it. And um, it's right up there. I've read in your, um, bio where some people had compared, you know, you a little bit to Frank and The Wizard of Oz, but a lot of people don't know that there's a frank.
Story about the origins of Santa Claus. Really. And I have read that as well. And, um, I don't know how I lucked up on it. It was just a Christmas book. I'm crazy about Christmas. And so I ordered it. Uh, and like I said, my children are grown, but, uh, still love Christmas. We all love Christmas as a family. And I bought this book last year and read that Origin of Santa Claus from Frank Elba and.
It is not just like, but it's on the same scale as Big Tree. Oh wow. You know, he's, uh, Santa Claus comes from all of these. Nature creatures, mythical nature, creatures carries and all of these things. And he grows up. And then there's this big woodsman, like the old one. Yeah. You know, and so just beautiful.
And I thought about that story when I read this book. It's just extraordinary. And I, I, again, I will repeat. This is a book that needs to be on every family's bookshelf, just like you have. Um, What's the other Christmas book? It's a, it was a, um, about St. Nick, the one that reads every Christmas about St.
Nick. I mean, it's just that much of a classic book that you need to have on your shelf. I mean, I can just see the quality time one can spend with their child or grandchild and going through this book. Oh, and now let's talk about your illustrations, which are. Amazing. And you show your little seeds and it talks from time to time about their fluff kind of wearing off or disappearing.
And I was like, oh.
Please hold on. You know? And so, um, that was just precious and, and you could tell what every, even in its graphic look, uh, you can tell, you know, Murran and Louise and the Giants and all of these things, it's very clear. And the illustrations mean just as much as the words. How did you come to strike that balance between, you know, the words and the artwork?
I really, I mean, I tend to think visually, so I'm usually seeing something before I'm even writing it. But when I'm making a book, I'm very interested in what happens when you turn the page and how you tell a story. And when I was making the invention of Hugo Cabret, which is actually related to the history of cinema, one of the characters, and it is Simon movie director, I realized that there's an interesting connection between picture books, like where the wild things are and movies.
Yeah. Because the way you move through like the wild rumpus and where the wild things are and how a movie might go through a tracking shot where the camera is moving for a long time without any editing or when you edit from one scene to a next to the next scene, I realized that I can take some of these cinematic techniques and use them when you are turning the pages in a book.
Yes. And you can have big sequences where there's no words and instead of describing like. Hugo runs down the hallway. Right. You could have 10 pages where you see him running down hallways. Yes. In the pantry. I knew that I wanted to help the viewer feel, or the reader feel like they were inside this story, and by drawing the forests and the trees and going underwater and being in the, the waves and the shells and everything is happening to these two little seeds, because we're seeing it for a third or a half of the book, we could.
Feel like we're immersed in this world a little bit more. Yes. And that is very interesting to me, or that is very interesting to me. Whenever I'm making a story and trying to figure out how I can, uh, tell the story. And when I'm doing drawings, I generally don't like to do what people often do in comic books and graphic novels, which is to have like a speech bubble, which is great.
Right. Right. But what I'm drawing in my books, I very often like to just have the whole page, the whole spread be a picture. And yes. So if there's gonna be any write, any thoughts or any words and dialogue, it has to be on a separate page. Right where you can read about what the characters are thinking and what they're saying to each other, and sometimes what they're doing.
But then if it's just action where you're watching the, the seeds like move through the water or go through the forest or a dinosaurs coming and it's gonna eat them, you can turn the page like you can, like you might read. What's that sound? I don't know what it is. Oh my gosh. Look. And then you turn the page and it's the giant foot of a dinosaur.
Yes. It's the next 10 pages. The dinosaur is just slowly moving past the view screen of the book. Yes. And so that's really fun to play with when I making the pictures in a book. Well, it definitely for me, the pictures even spoke. Oh. You know, they were just so, um, you know, I'm looking at a big eye right now of one of the pages.
I mean, you know, once you turn the page, the, the, the pictures spoke to me as well, you know, and, and, and it brought of course more vividness to the story. Yeah. Now, one of the things I'm always interested in, uh, when talking to writer, uh, authors rather. How, um, how a lot of times how you come up with the world that you create, but your world is based on science.
But how did you come up with the name Merwin? I was like, I've never even heard that as a name and Louise. I, I thought, I thought she was, uh, uh, applicably, uh, apropo named Louise. Okay. But, uh, what about Merwin? Where did that come from? Yeah, I, I was beginning to think about what these characters were gonna be like, and like, who, if there was anyone I wanted to reference.
And at the beginning of the pandemic, someone sent me a quote from a poem. I'm, I'm sure a lot of your, you know, viewers had moments where, uh, inspiring quotes were sent or they found something that moved them and they knew that this could help someone feel better. And so, you know, we sh sometimes in.
Difficult times. We share inspiring quotes. Right? And, and someone sent me a line from a poem, uh, by a poet named w s Merwin, William Ess Merwin. Oh. And the line from the poem was On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree. Oh wow. And, and that, oh my goodness. Right. So that idea that even in the face of catastrophe, the end of everything, yes.
The poet is saying he would still want to do something hopeful because planting a tree is about the future. Right? Trees, yes. Sometimes take 500 years to reach maturity. Exactly. So this idea that even in the face of the end of the world of complete catastrophe, he still wanted to be hopeful. Yes. If he feel like.
Oh, I need, I, I forgot about hope. Wow. I need to be hopeful. Yes. Shut everything down. I'm, I was separated from my husband for, by, by, he was across the country. I didn't know when I was gonna see him again. Like we were all so devastated. Yes. Suddenly I was like, oh, right. I should try to think about maybe being hopeful.
So I had Ws Merwin in my mind. And the funny thing is I gave his name to the very, very uptight character. And the character who's actually very poetic and dreamy is Louise. Yes. And I aimed her after a scientist named Dr. Louise Coleville, who studies seeds. Oh my gosh. So the poet is actually named after the scientist and the scientific character is actually named after the poet.
Oh wow. Oh my gosh. That is just wonderful. I mean, you know, and, and I love that they have meaning and not just pulled out of the air. Yeah. You know, I love that. Now, you know, one of the other things that intrigued me and to, uh, my audience, I will say, you have a little section at the back talking about the science, which is wonderful for people to, um, to shore up the story of Big Tree.
And, um, I noticed that, and, and I was wondering why the sycamore tree? And then I thought, you know, and I live in North Carolina, so I'm surrounded by trees. Mm-hmm. Um, and I was like, Sycamore tree. Why the sycamore tree? Why was that so important? And you say here, the sycamore tree family really was around during theta period.
Yep. Sea fossil species and. I didn't know that. So all of the other trees, uh, weren't around during that time. So the Sycamore must be a powerful, powerful tree. Yeah. So the, the, one of the first things I did when I began researching the story was reach out to, uh, someone who is a paleo botanist who studies ancient plants.
Oh, yes. And he works at the new, this guy j Jamie Boyer works at the, uh, New York Botanical Gardens. Okay. And he's the one who introduced me to this idea of fossil species, which are plants that have been alive since the time of the dinosaurs. And earlier. So you, you mentioned earlier that ferns have been around forever.
Mm-hmm. So they are known as a fossil species. It turns out Moores have been around since the least, the flirtatious era. Um, GCO trees. I'm sure a lot of, you know, people live near ginkgo trees. Yeah. Um, they have been around since then, so. So the idea that I could make the main character a tree that was actually around at the time of the dinosaurs, but could still be a tree, that you could go outside Yes.
And see. Was very important to me and Wow. On top of that, the Sycamore actually develops its seeds in these seed balls, which is a little bit like a nursery, right? Yes. So it really is like all these siblings are in a little nursery together, and they then have to. You know, disperse and go out into the world.
Yeah. So there were all of these interesting elements about sycamore trees that felt like they would work well for my story. And you had mentioned the importance of the, as of the family aspect for you in this story. Yeah, and I. Say that, that makes me, I'm really happy to hear that because that was very, very central.
The, yes, the science is important, but the really, the real thing that I was trying to get at was the, these ideas around family and Yes. And one of, one of the things that I put into the book that was important to me, Was something that A, a friend of mine, uh, Deborah, how Zelensky always used to say to me about raising kids.
I don't have kids, but she, she, she, uh, had, has two great daughters. Yes. And she says to me that the job of every parent is to give their children roots and wings roots so that they feel safe and they know what their family's history is and that, and they know where they come from. Yes. But, A good parent also gives their children wings so that they can fly off and go out into the world and make their own way, but always know that they have these important roots.
Yes. And she said, she has said that to me for years and years. So when I began to work on Big Tree, I remembered. That she said that to me. Yes. And I thought, who better to say that in a story than an actual tree? Like what if mom a tree actually tells her children a good parent gives their children roots and wings.
Oh my God. And that that helps the children. Because it's scary to go off into the world on your own. Right? It's, again, I'm not a parent, but I bet it's scary for a parent to let their kids go. Right? Yes. It, it's, we do wanna protect your kids, right? Yes. But we all know that, like we have to go out into the world and it's a dangerous world out there.
It is. Many reasons, and yes. You know, but if a kid knows that they are loved and they, and that they come from somewhere strong and they feel that security, Uh, we hope that, that we can have that security as we head out into the world. You know, I was a kid who was raised by very supportive parents who then let me go, go out and, you know, I, for me, I.
Part of what was scary was moving to New York. Right. Because I, yes, I was raised in New Jersey in the seventies when the idea of New York was terrifying. Yeah. And the first thing I wanted to do after college was move to New York. And my parents were like, oh my gosh, that's so scary. But you know, they sup, they ultimately supported me and I was safe.
I was okay. Yes, yes. You know, but so that idea for family and, and knowing where you come from and knowing Yes. That you're, that you have, uh, somewhere to go, um, yes. Was something I really wanted to put into Big Tree. Well, definitely it is in there. Okay. It is 100% in there, and I loved that. And I did not know that a friend of yours had told you about the roots and the wings, and that was another thing that pulled at my heartstrings.
Like I said, this is a. Book of many layers is very important about the nature aspect, and that's the first reason that it came across and that you wrote it for. But that family aspect is all also in there and it could really means still a lot to children who have lost. The parent, uh, that they can go on even though their parent may be gone, their mother may be gone, or these children that are in foster situations or adoptive situations.
It's still inspirational for all forms and formats of family. Yeah, it's, it's amazing. Yeah. Roots. Roots aren't just biological. Right. That's right. Are the people around you who love you and support you and my book again and again from Hugo to Wonder strt, to the Marvels and especially Big Tree, are very much about family and finding family and making family outside of your biological family.
And that's, that's not the discount the biological family in any way? No, but it's, but it's a way to say it's as. Powerful and as important to, to create a family and, yes. And the community because that, again, like in, in the end, a lot of bigtree is about recognizing that we're all part of a community. Our family is a community, our family is part of a larger community of other families.
That community is part of a bigger community. Of who we are and where we come from, and that those circles keep getting bigger and bigger until if you really step back, it's everybody. Right? Yes. We're all part of the same community. Yes, yes, yes. This amazing. Now Victory is out for purchase. It was, uh, published this yesterday, the other day.
Yesterday. Okay. And brand name, new baby. Yes. So it's just published yesterday, so you can easily go ahead and purchase this book. You can also purchase the audio book version in which Meryl Streep is the narrator. Yeah, she's amazing. Not surprising. Yes, she is extraordinary. I, I sent her the book and a note and I just said, would you consider reading this?
And she loved the book, which itself was such an extraordinary thing to hear. And then she, I got to sit with her in the record. Recording booth for an entire day as she read the, the whole book. I, and I made a special script because I had to replace the pictures with words that she could read. Yes. But then there's music and there's sound effects, and she does 25 different voices for all of the characters in the book.
Oh my goodness. It's unbelievable. So I, I really hope everybody gets a chance to hear it. Well, I think I might circle back and do a reread through audiobook. Oh, I'd love that. And listen to that as well. I think that would be amazing. And Brian might, I say you must be living right. Um, to be, to access Mel Street and Steven Spielberg, you have to tell me your secret.
Cause it's obviously you're. No, I've been, I've been very lucky and, and, and in a lot of ways it goes back to Hugo because I spent three years making this book about French silent movies that I didn't think anybody was gonna read. And then Right. I sent it out into the world. Martin Scorsese got a copy, that's why didn't another one.
Right. So he, he got a copy and someone sent it to him, I think because they knew he had a 10 year old daughter at the time. Okay. Okay. He wanted to make a movie finally that his daughter could see. You know, he doesn't really make children movies. Stark couldn't see any of the movies he is made. Yeah. And so I think once that happened, And, and, and, uh, Scorsese, uh, made this very beautiful film inspired by my book.
It, it opened a lot of really extraordinary doors and I think, you know, Spielberg came to Hugo because he's friends with Scorsese. And you know, and then Scorsese, then Spielberg came to me. So it is like you can see all of these connections and all of these doors, but for me, really like the main important thing is kids getting the chance to read the story and families getting the chance to share the story and yeah, like what Scorsese offered.
Was exponentially more people being exposed to this story. Right. And that's wonderful. And the, and the, I love the movie, but one of the really love the movie, but one of the great things is the movie brings a lot of people to the book and Right. And then they get to discover that there is a book and then maybe that leads them to another book or learn to learn more about something in the book.
And, and this idea of families being able to read together and, and parents and children sharing these stories, right. Is that, you know, it, part of what's so exciting to me about these unexpected, uh, connections that have happened is, is that it means more kids will potentially get the chance to hear or read these stories and, and that's very.
Uh, that's the main point of all of this. Wonderful. You know, and, and like one of the things Big Tree has done for me is that I'm seeking Sycamore trees, Sycamore. I'm not the nature girl. I'm usually like, oh, there's a bug. I don't outside all of this stuff, but I do care. I have a very beautiful yard. I do have a well manicured yard and everything, but I don't do.
Doing that at work, but you know, it's making me wanna seek out learning more about like the sycamore trees and how all of this works within, um, you know, nature and to save our earth. I'm very concerned about our climate. I'm very concerned about all the things and the ramifications of what's going on right now.
And so it, it is leading me to further study, uh, on more ways on how I can help and I. And a lot of organizations that, I'm trying to think how we can pull together a quick project and plant some trees. Great. Towards the end of the month. Great. You know, so, um, definitely inspired on all around and certainly by Big Tree.
Oh, thank you. Ryan Selznick, thank you so much for joining the bookaholic podcast today with this inspirational story. I really appreciate you sitting down to Pennant. It was really, really fantastic to speak with you and get to share this with your audience. So thank you really so much for having me. Yes, yes.
Glad to have you here, and we'll have all of Brian's information and links to Bigtree in the podcast show notes and in the video description box on the YouTube channel. Brian, thank you again. All right. Thank you so much.