Brian Selznick, BIG TREE

Brian Selznick, BIG TREE

Zibby interviews #1 New York Times bestselling author Brian Selznick about Big Tree, an enthralling and hopeful book of finely detailed pencil drawings about two little seeds on an epic adventure to find a safe place to grow. Brian explains how Steven Spielberg was involved in this project, which was originally a movie screenplay. He also reveals that both seeds’ personalities are based on his own and then discusses his book’s central themes: sibling relationships, climate change, and the bravery to forge your own path. Finally, Brian talks about his wildly successful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, his experience growing up as a queer child, and the danger of book bans.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brian. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest, Big Tree. Congratulations.

Brian Selznick: Thank you so much.

Zibby: You are such a genius. I don’t even know what to say. This book is amazing. How you put yourself in the point of view of a seed and make us care and love — I felt like crying. How you have us see the whole world and the system of communication and what it means and what monsters — it’s just amazing. The illustration, it’s so unique and so amazing, like all of your work. Still, this is particularly powerful and awesome.

Brian: Thank you so much. That really means a lot. It was very challenging figuring out how to tell a story about nature from nature’s point of view about two little seeds and how to make us really be able to relate to it. At a certain point, I realized that we all feel tiny and helpless and unable to do anything in a world that feels very much out of our control. I write books about kids who have often been separated from their parents for various reasons and are themselves trying to find a safe place to grow up. I eventually realized that there actually isn’t any difference between Merwin and Louise, who are seeds, as with any of the other human characters who I’ve written.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Why this theme? Where does that come from in you personally?

Brian: It’s funny. I’ve always loved nature. I grew up in suburban New Jersey. There was a little area of woods right behind our house that hadn’t been turned into a development yet. I remember crossing the threshold from my backyard, which was very manicured, into the wildness of the woods and how everything changed. The sound changed. The smell changed. The feeling in the air changed. It was mysterious, a little dangerous. I didn’t know if there were wild animals or jaguars around. Eventually, that got torn down and built into other houses. This whole book started because I got a call from Steven Spielberg. It’s the most unexpected, weird journey for any book I’ve ever made in so many ways. Usually, I have something on my mind that I very much want to figure out how to write a story about, whether it’s French silent movies, which became Hugo; or deaf culture and the history of museums, which became Wonderstruck; or London theater, which became The Marvels. This time, it was someone else literally planting a seed. That someone else was Steven Spielberg. He called six or seven years ago. He had this idea. He wanted me to write a movie for him. I flew to California. Turned out he was a huge fan of Hugo.

He asked me to write a movie for him about nature from nature’s point of view. He realized that he had never seen a movie like that. He had never seen a movie where the main characters were plants. I thought to myself, there might be a reason that we’ve never seen that. I spent a couple of years working with him and the coproducer, Chris Meledandri, on a screenplay for what would have been a big animated movie. I came up with these characters, this story, this time period. It’s sort of a little surprise at the beginning because at first, we think it’s set today in a forest. Eventually, pretty quickly, we discover that it’s actually at the end of the Cretaceous Era right before the asteroid hits the planet and destroys most life on earth. The planet’s under an existential threat. These two little seeds, I decided, were going to have to find a safe place to grow and try to figure out how they were going to save the world. That felt like a good parallel for what was happening today with the existential threat towards our planet and how we feel tiny and helpless. Sometimes we feel like we’re wrapped in a blanket on a sick day at home. We don’t quite know where to be or what to do. We all feel like that sometimes. I worked on this with them until the pandemic hit. In the pandemic, it became clear for various reasons that this movie was just never going to get made.

By that point, I had really fallen in love with the characters and the story, so I proposed to Mr. Spielberg that they give me the rights to the story and let me turn it into a book. This book that you have there, and I have a copy here, is the outcome of that request. In a funny way, even though it was actually meant to be a movie — we never could’ve imagined the pandemic would happen. I feel now that the story actually was always meant to be a book. When it was a movie, I wasn’t doing any art. It was going to be professional animators. We were trying to figure out where the faces were going to go on the seeds. We all thought you needed to have faces on characters in a movie. When I started doing the book, I realized the reason the character designs never quite worked with faces was because seeds don’t have faces. For the story, I had made a rule for myself that everything would have to be based in science. Plants actually can communicate with each other, so having the characters talk is fine. Trees can’t get up and walk around on their roots, so I wouldn’t have that. That’s why I needed seeds to be the main characters. They can actually move around and have some volition. Then I just realized, oh, the pictures need to have the same rule. Seeds don’t have faces, so the seeds in the book don’t have faces. It’s just a very unexpected discovery that this story should be a book. I’m really glad I got the chance to do that.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter that they don’t have faces. You still relate so much because of their thoughts and feelings and their journeys and even seeing the dinosaur underneath and realizing, like you said — I was like, oh, my gosh, it’s a dinosaur. It’s amazing. Even the loss of the mom — I know this happens really early. I feel like I’m not giving much away, right? I could take this out if you don’t want me to say. Feelings of loss and banding together, it’s so beautiful. It’s amazing.

Brian: Thank you. A friend of mine who’s a mom always, always said to me that what she thinks a good parent gives her children is roots and wings, roots to know that they have a family and a system where they’re safe, but wings to fly out into the world and discover who they are. When I started writing this book, I knew I wanted to use that because it would be literally the perfect thing for a tree to actually say. Ultimately, seeds have to leave their mama tree and head off into the world to grow. I don’t have kids, but I understand that one of the things you hope to do as a parent is to be able to raise someone who can go out into the world and have a good life. That’s challenging because you want to protect them and be able to stop bad things from happening to them. At a certain point, we all need to go out into the world and make our way. We can do it, perhaps, more securely if we know that we come from a family that supports us and a good system of roots. Then we can really use the wings we hopefully have been given.

Zibby: The sibling relationship too, I think a lot of parents — do you have siblings yourself?

Brian: I do. I’m the oldest of three.

Zibby: You must feel that protective instinct about your siblings. I’m the oldest too. I always feel that, even though we’re old now. I’m sure he doesn’t want my protection. He’s a forty-something-year-old man. Inside, I can’t let that go no matter what.

Brian: I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually written about siblings. Most of my kids are either only kids or orphans. They make families around them. My books are very much about how we make our own family, ultimately. We bring people to us who we love and who we want to be around, who we can support and who can support us. This was really interesting to start to imagine writing about a sibling relationship. Then I also ultimately discovered that they have very different personalities, as siblings often do. Even though they’re essentially the same age, Merwin kind of acts as the older brother. He is very bossy and very secure in his knowledge that he’s right, and very rigid. His little sister, Louise, is very dreamy and poetic and hears voices and talks to the stars in her dreams. She’s the one who begins to understand that there might be a bigger purpose than just finding a safe place to grow. Maybe they have a larger thing that they need to do.

After I finished the book, someone asked me who these characters were based on. People always want to know. Who is it, really? Who in your life inspired these characters? For me, the answer keeps on being, they’re all me. It’s all me. I can’t say I’m conscious of that when I’m writing. One side of me is super rigid and wants to control everything around me. That’s the side that my husband gets mad at me about and causes me to have fights with people. Then the other side is that dreamy, curious part that is creative and wants to connect to the bigger world and is very fluid and is much more able to listen. Maybe they’re two sides of all of us in different ways, but the balance shifts depending on who we are and how much therapy we’ve had. I think it’s a very human tension. As I’ve thought about it, I’m very aware that I am trying to allow Louise to outweigh Merwin, which is what ultimately is a big part of the story of Big Tree.

Zibby: I feel like this should be a New Yorker cartoon where you see the balance, and then you see the little therapy sessions. Then they walk out. Oh, my gosh, so funny. You also, in Big Tree, you still raise questions of — there are all these hardworking scientists, but if they don’t have the right perspective, it doesn’t matter how much they’re aware and all the results. What does it mean if you’re so studying but you don’t even realize you’re underwater? If you’re so myopic, then you’re not going to be able to take in everything and help anything.

Brian: These characters, the scientists in the book, are little tiny creatures that Merwin and Louise meet when they get stuck underwater after a various series of other adventures. These little scientists are based on real creatures called foraminifera that are almost microscopic. The biggest ones are about the size of a grain of sand. They’re in all the water everywhere for all time. They’ve always been in the water. When they die, their little tiny shells fossilize and capture the carbon from the atmosphere. When scientists find these almost-microscopic fossils from millions and billions of years ago, in the fossil of the foraminifera they can see what the carbon level was at the time that they died. That’s actually how we know about climate change. I turned these foraminifera into these funny little characters called scientists whose entire job underwater is recording data. The foraminifera, the scientists that Merwin and Louise meet, are working for this mad king. He’s a piece of seaweed who thinks he’s in charge of everything and he knows everything. Everything he interprets is incorrect. He’s never been out of the water, so he doesn’t believe that land even exists. He’s heard about it. It’s like a fairy tale. Therefore, he thinks Merwin and Louise don’t exist, even though they’re standing in front of him.

He decides they’re imaginary. He always wanted imaginary friends, and so he captures them in this seashell. He’s this mad king of Bavaria like Ludwig. He’s just wrong about everything. The scientists are saying that they’re capturing all this information, essentially, for him. Merwin, at one point, says sort of what you were saying, which is, what’s the point? If your data isn’t being interpreted correctly, what’s the point of collecting the data? The point that they make is what’s important is getting it right. We can’t control how other people interpret it. Our hope is that one day — in my story, they purposefully inscribe the information on their bodies, all the information that they’ve gathered. It’s inspired by the idea of the carbon that’s captured in their bodies. They say, we trust that one day other scientists will come along who interpret our data correctly. For them in the future, we need to get everything right. That’s us. They don’t know it, but they’re talking about us. Because they did their jobs well, we are able to benefit from it. That seemed like something that made sense for the world today from various angles.

Zibby: This whole thing, it gives me chills, just how it all links to today and all the big meanings behind it. It’s really amazing. Are you not upset at all that it’s not a movie? Do you feel like this is way better because now you got to do the book? Are you a little bit sad? Not at all?

Brian: No. It’s so funny. What made me sad — I was about to say what made me sad was the pandemic, as if that was a shocking piece of news. We were all so devastated by the shutdown. All of our lives changed in ways we never ever imagined it could. The world changed in ways we never imagined it could. We’re still, obviously, dealing with all of the ramifications of that. The world is still in great upheaval, which we feel every single day. I often look at ourselves and think, how does any of us get through a day? Luckily right now, we are able to make pretend that some things are normal, which is great. It’s helpful to get through the day, but we all know nothing is normal. Also, maybe it calls into the question the idea that the fact that we thought things were normal earlier is also a problem. A lot of things that we thought were normal, it’s actually really good to recognize are, in fact, not normal. That sense of the upheaval and the devastation is what, like all of us, is what I was dealing with. The fact that there’s a book, a physical object that we can all look at and open and read — we can listen to the audio version of it. The fact that this story has gotten out there because I wanted it to — I was told this movie isn’t going to happen. Nothing was going to happen. I got the idea to keep it alive, to make it a book. I made it happen. Mr. Spielberg gave me the permission and encouraged me and loved the outcome. He asked to see the book when it was finished. He didn’t ask for input as I was making the book. When I finished, I sent it to him and the coproducer, Chris Meledandri. They called me on the phone to tell me how much they loved it. That’s a really nice feeling. No, the only thing I feel when I think about Big Tree is joy and gratitude that it exists.

Zibby: Do you feel like it’s more for kids, for grown-ups, or just for everybody? As a grown-up, I feel like this was still for me. I got so much out of it.

Brian: Good. I’m very proud when I say that I write and illustrate books for children. I love being a children’s book writer and illustrator. I do a lot of things. I write screenplays. I’m working on shows and other things. I’m a puppeteer. I always lead by saying, I’m a writer and illustrator of children’s books. I’m very conscious of the fact that my audience is kids. They’re the best audience you could ask for. I also really love when people who are not kids tell me that they’ve read my books and love them and relate to them and have shared them. That makes me very happy. Ultimately, I’m not actually writing my books for kids. I’m really just writing my books for myself and trying to — I’m aware that I’m working in a job. I hope that that job leads to a book that gets published and gets sent out into the world. I used to work at a children’s bookstore before I started. I remember the thrill of reading all the books and getting the new books in from all the authors who I loved and dreaming of one day having one book on the shelf and how incredible that would be. My first book was published while I was still working at the bookstore, so I got to actually give that book to people. The act of sharing is very much a part of the process. That’s what I do.

It’s what you do. You’re talking to people and sharing what you love about books, about reading, about what parents can gain, what kids gain from the act of reading together and talking about books together. That act of sharing is very much part of why I do what I do. Mostly, I write about things I want to write about that I find interesting, which usually are not actually things kids would normally find interesting. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was about French silent movies, which is not a guaranteed best-seller in the children’s book world. People would ask me what I was working on. I’d be like, “A book for children about French silent movies.” They’d be like, “That is a terrible idea.” My editor said, “If the main character cares about something and then your readers care about your main character, they’ll also care about what the main character cares about.” That became very true for silent movies. So many kids wrote me after Hugo to say, oh, my god, we love watching silent movies now. We made a silent movie festival for the retirement community in our town. Wonderstruck was about the history of museums and deaf culture. The Marvels was about the history of British theater.

These are things that people often don’t learn about until graduate school, if they learn about it at all. I’m interested in it. I find a way in for me. Because my main characters are usually ten to twelve years old, that is generally why I think my books are for kids. Again, I’m not specifically writing for kids, even though, as I said, I’m very proud of the fact that they’re my main audience. It’s just that the people who I think of to write stories about are ten to twelve years old. It makes sense that people who are that age mostly gravitate to that story; younger, older, but around that age. I’m writing about things that I love, especially, recognizing in Big Tree, I’m also writing about struggles that I need to figure out for myself. I was talking about the fight between the Merwin side of me and the Louise side of me. It’s also a way to work through your own issues in a lot of ways, but again, in a way that hopefully is something that people can relate to and that is universal. Generally, we’re dealing within themes that are often bigger than just us. Whatever thing we’re grieving, whatever thing we’re struggling with, whatever thing we don’t know how to do, generally, we’re not actually the only person dealing with those things. We have unique situations. We’re all unique people. We all approach things uniquely. We all have unique families. Thematically, other people are dealing with similar things.

Zibby: Very true. There’s no better way to connect than through the emotions at the very core of all of that. Why have you picked this overlay? Obviously, your topics are very interesting. They come from deep interests, and academic and intellectual and everything. To overlay the emotional separation, like you were talking about earlier, with a child from the parent or even in Baby Monkey, Private Eye, which I know I have to keep referencing because my son loves it so much, this quest to find the person you love and all of that or what happens when you get separated, where did that piece come from? Did you do therapy on that part of it?

Brian: I grew up in a very stable household. My parents were very supportive of me and my brother and my sister. They always said they would support whatever it is we want to do when we grew up. When I was really little, like five or six, I loved art. Somehow, when my brother was six, he knew he wanted to be a brain surgeon. My sister, in kindergarten, knew she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. That’s what we all grew up to be. We’re talking very much about themes right now. Really, when I’m writing, I’m not focused on themes. I’m focused on plot and character and what happens next. When I finished Hugo, if you had asked me what that book was about, I would have said it’s a book about a kid who lives in a train station who meets an old man. They help each other. A friend of mine is a theater director. He says it’s the artist’s job to make the work, and it’s the audience’s job to tell them what it’s about. Very early on when I was on tour for the book of Hugo, an adult reader came up to me and said, “I love that Hugo is about how we make our own families.” I was like, is it? Oh, my gosh, it is. That’s what happens to Hugo. He ends up finding this family. It’s not his biological family because he’s an orphan. He gets a sister. He gets, essentially, parental figures in Georges-Jean Méliès. He’s safe in a home at the end of that book.

I think that idea of going out into the world, like we were talking before with roots and wings and making our own families, is just really central to my experience. Growing up as a queer kid and coming out very late — I was in my mid to late-twenties before I even came out. It was discovering that, oh, my god, there are other people out here who have been experiencing this thing that I’ve been keeping secret that I thought was just mine. Suddenly, it’s like, wow, I’m actually part of culture. I’m part of history. That’s why these insane, horrific bans that are going on right now are so, ultimately, useless, except that they’re going to hurt young people. That, they’re actively going to do. What they’re not going to do is make gay people not exist because we have existed through all of time. We have existed before there were names for us. You can’t make us not exist. The fantasy that we only exist because we’ve read about ourselves in a book is nuts because most of us of a certain age grew up in a world where there was no positive role model. There were very few characters in books. There was no one saying it’s okay.

That sense of needing to find a community — whatever community you’re in, there are people who agree with you. There are people on your side. I met a librarian recently at a librarian conference who’s in a state that’s facing a lot of difficulties in book banning. I said, “What can we do?” She said, “Just talk about us. Just talk about libraries and the importance of libraries.” Remember that even in a place where you feel like the entire community is ganging up against you, there are people in that community who support you. Sometimes they may not be as vocal because they might have to be at home taking care of their kids or whatever it is, but there is a community there. It’s just sometimes it’s a little harder to find them. For young people, it is going to make things more difficult in a lot of ways. We just hope that we can keep getting the message out that there are people out there who love you and support you and want you to be okay.

Zibby: Yes. I honestly can’t even believe all this is happening in the world. Brian, this has been so interesting. I truly think you are such a genius in so many ways. It’s an honor to talk to you. Congratulations on Big Tree and everything that you’re working on. I’m just such a fan. Go forth and conquer.

Brian: Thank you. Thank you for the work you do getting the word out into the world. It’s really greatly appreciated. It’s so good to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Bye. Thank you.

Brian: Bye.

Brian Selznick, BIG TREE

BIG TREE by Brian Selznick

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