I’ve been struggling with this post, but I had to finish it before I could do my Hallowe’en post, and I have to do that before Hallowe’en and time was ticking– so you know, it gave me a deadline, and sometimes you just need a deadline to push something onto the page. And I needed to tell you about Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick because it’s honestly just that good. New, original, and deeply rooted in everything old and treasured. (Excellent Scholastic page for it here.) (Pssst: I’ve interspersed this with terrible scraps of photos I took with my phone of Brian Selznick’s actual art from the book because you need to get a sense for it– but please note that this is only a facet of a facet of the actual thing.)
I’m not the sort of reader who requires something new in every single book from each author. Sometimes an author really does a great job at consistency in a particular series, for example—I’m thinking of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox + Chick books which continue to surprise and delight while maintaining a consistent pitch and voice, very much in the style of Lobel’s Frog and Toad, which, like Fox + Chick, was a decidedly original idea, but the characters and stories were maintained in a consistent form. To require novelty is not necessarily a good thing.
But when it comes, and comes in the proper time and a rush of explosive glory, I welcome it.
Brian Selznick is truly, gloriously original.
I first encountered him in The Marvels, which was the book I was thinking of when I used “explosive glory” in that earlier sentence. The Marvels followed earlier triumphs, The Invention of Hugo Cabret being, I believe, his first true published foray into the merger of art and text in his own way. I briefly go into Hugo Cabret here, where I see I conclude with rather grandiose words (but they’re true): “if there’s one author who I really think is doing something new in modern novels, it’s Brian Selznick. The intersection of art and text is closer in his books than in any since the illuminated manuscript.” I’ve seen illuminated manuscripts aplenty, and illustrated books aplenty. I still think I’m correct in that assessment.
That was back in 2017. I haven’t kept up with everything he’s been doing, but when I was reading about Maurice Sendak his name kept coming up and eventually (I can be dim) it dawned on me that just as Sendak did new and explosive things, well, there are people he mentored, including Selznick, and maybe there’s something to that…
One day I was at a Book Shop for Big People (aka my local general bookshop, The Brookline Booksmith) and found a gorgeous book of Walt Whitman poems I’d never heard of—Live Oak, with Moss which turned out to be completely interleaved with the most extraordinary illustrations by Selznick. This collection of twelve private, deeply moving poems, exploring same-sex love, was never published before this edition, and I like to think Whitman would have been as moved by Selznick’s art as Selznick clearly was by his poetry. Together they made something beautiful. Whitman would have loved to see the culmination of this collaboration he didn’t know about. I’m sure of that as of anything.
That came out in 2019.
We all know about 2020.
I wonder what Selznick would have made if it hadn’t been for the pandemic? But, intensely original as he is, he couldn’t not respond to the fractured, cloistered, suddenly private-turned-public-forced-to-private world of the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic I heard artists debating whether this would be “good for art.” It was a rehash of the 2016 election: “It’s traumatic!” “Trauma is good for art.” “Art needs funding to exist.” “Artists make art no matter what.” “How can you make art if you’re undergoing trauma?” And on and on. The pandemic was the same but different: “I can’t make art without being paid!” “I’m bored, my gigs are all cancelled, I’m going to stream my art.” “How can I play music when I’m worried I’ll be evicted?” “Well, I can’t do anything else…”
Please note the shift to the first person. This was suddenly immediate, and personal, in a way that the projections in 2016 (which were often a bit more generalized) were not. But some of the conversation was still projection—less “what do I do today?” and more “OK, but what will this look like long-term? Can this endure as a model? Will we change how we fund art?”
To be honest, in the music world, at least, I saw nothing altered unless it was a discussion of taste. (I refer to music because it’s immediate; publishing moves slowly.) Very broadly speaking, I felt that younger enthusiasts tuning into music streams were enthusiastic about the immediacy and intimacy of artists streaming from their homes and loved the feeling of “getting to know” an artist like Angel Blue (glorious soprano!) singing her heart out without professional makeup and hair or whatever (though, Lord, she looked beautiful, professional makeup or not)—and established audiences would grumble about the imperfect recording and wish to be back in the opera house. (I’m 34 and cared more about the passion than the recording quality, I’m afraid!)
I wondered, though, if it would look different in publishing, where the results take time to come into evidence. I don’t mean books about the pandemic. It takes a lot to make me care for a book “about” trauma. Books resulting from it, though, or reflecting it… ah, that’s a different story!
So, I’m wondering, and I haven’t asked Brian Selznick this because one of the tragedies of my existence is I can’t just text him, “Hey Brian—quick question: do you think Kaleidoscope’s feeling of being caught yet free, fractured yet whole, ever-changing yet somehow permanent, is a result of your own feelings during the pandemic?” Can’t imagine why I don’t have his phone number. (Brian, shoot me an email if that sounds like the kind of text you enjoy getting at 7 am while I’m waiting for the baby to wake up.)
But I’m wondering if that set of feelings I described—first of all, would he describe his book that way, or was that simply what his art evoked in me? Second, was that set of feelings inherent to the setting he was working with (his Author’s Note describes the book as having been in development for the five years previous, but one constant throughout was a house called Port Eliot in Cornwall which definitely evokes a sense of both enclosure and freedom in the book), or was it just that the setting was receptive to setting off the feelings?
I have no idea. What I do know is that I feel that this book was the first explosion of new art, of a change in the medium of literature and visual art, I’ve experienced in response to the pandemic. Maybe there’s more in progress. But this is the first that’s landed in front of me that said new things in a new fashion, that the vehicle for the feeling had fundamentally altered.
Don’t worry, it’s absolutely the Brian Selznick you know in there: you will love this if you love an intimate intertwining of words and art such that you don’t really know where one ends and the next begins and find yourself stumbling in trying to describe it to people “well, it’s not a picture book, but it’s words with pictures, and it’s not a graphic novel, but… look you just have to experience it yourself, ok?”
But this is more. It’s ramped up to 11—no, to 12, midnight or noon, I’m not sure which. The pumpkin changes into a coach and back again.
Let me put it this way: I read it, marvelling over each page turn, and then looked around for the nearest kid the right age. I was at the synagogue and spotted the rabbi’s eldest daughter, a big reader. I quickly called out to her: “Have you read any Brian Selznick? Maybe Hugo Cabret?” Her eyes lit up: “Yes!” I held out Kaleidoscope, and she glanced through it but saw my copy was fresh and signed and promised she’d get it from the library since she didn’t want to risk spoiling my lovely copy. At home, my Changeling (she’s 8 years old now, can you believe it?) grabbed it and read it before I noticed. (This… this is not an unusual scenario.) I wouldn’t have normally given it to her yet, not before Hugo Cabret. I feel like it’s somehow too much too quickly. But she came to me after having read it, the whole way through, with a kind of fascinated frustration: “But how does it work and what does it mean?” I was astonished, because a nonlinear book like that—well. I’d never have given it to her, as I said, but if I’d thought it over beforehand, my expectation would have been that she’d just bounce off of it and put it aside. What compelled her to continue reading? She really seemed interested, so I gave her Hugo Cabret, thinking either she’d read it and get a sense of Selznick’s work at her level, or she’d be so frustrated she’d just move on. She gobbled it up and loved it. (She still remembers the definition of the apple, I just asked.)
This isn’t (just) me bragging about my daughter. (OK, I am pretty intrigued that her mind had such elasticity.) It’s also a way of saying this: while I do think this is more geared towards an older young audience, it’s accessible. It’s odd to me that “accessible” has become kind of a dirty word. All it means is that it invites people to enjoy it. Selznick does something new, but in an inviting way, an alluring fashion. It’s challenging—but inviting. It’s beautiful—and invites you to bathe in that beauty. It’s sad—but the kind of sadness that invites you to share your own feelings and be seen and heard.
One of the ways Selznick achieves this sense of invitation is by the structure—as I said, it’s nonlinear. You expect a straightforward narrative. You don’t get one. The episodic nature is fractured, like the bits inside a kaleidoscope, but relentlessly consistent: nothing old goes away, nothing new comes in. It’s all there. We have James. And a house. We explore a garden. There’s an apple. Yes, the glass lens turns, the elements shake around, the day moves on and morning turns to afternoon and evening. But nothing is new under the rising or setting sun and the world has seen your joys and afflictions— and yet each one is fresh, original, and Selznick listens to and recognizes each story as a new story which is somehow, despite its originality, recognizable as of the first day of creation. It’s mesmerizing and absorbing, and you can’t stop turning to just one more… the next picture, the next bit of the story which isn’t really a story but—
You find yourself wondering what this medium is, really. It’s visual, both from the art on the page and the images in your mind. It’s narrative, but not. It’s like reading The Eve of St Agnes or Four Quartets. Or, somehow… both in one book, but with stained glass shining on the mashed up poetry.
The closest I can come to a definition of the indefinable is that it is more truly lyric poetry than much poetry I’ve read in the past five years: lovely and challenging, alluring and absorbing.