November 21, 2007

Frankensteinian : The Robot King

Lucy screamed as the attic burst with light. The Robot King’s electric body threw off golden sparks that filled the air like fireworks.

“Oh!” cried Lucy. “He’s alive, Ezra! He’s alive!”

Brian Selznick’s The Robot King (1995) is a story — at once melancholic and magic — about two Victorian-era children and how they cope with loss. The boy is mute since their mother died. His older sister busies herself building weird mechanical toys combining the discarded objects her brother collects and the forgotten odds and ends found in an old attic. One day, she builds a man-sized doll using wire, china, spoons, a hairbrush, a mirror, keys, twigs, any old thing, including a wooden manikin’s head. She dresses it up in an old red velvet coat and blue bow tie.

When she gives it a heart — her mother’s music box — the Robot King comes alive and the magic begins. Soon, the children are swept up in the Robot King’s adventures. Iron stoves, bicycles and every day objects are made to fly, an old abandoned amusement park revives itself, carousel horses break free and gallop away, and the children ride a Ferris wheel to the Moon and beyond.

Author Brian Selznick illustrates this intoxicating tale with fifteen sumptuous pencil drawings, meticulously detailed. The children are shown sitting in a moonlit cemetery, an abandoned roller coaster and a skeletal Ferris wheel sticking up in the distance, beyond the tombstones. A “wild herd of bicycles” tumble through the clouds. The Robot King takes flight on a “shimmering road of fireflies”.

The complex story and the occasionally somber tone, reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival stories, may be a bit overwhelming for some of the book’s intended audience. This is the kind of children’s book that connects best with older readers who celebrate childhood and are willing to surrender to the simple but strong emotions expressed in the adventures of Lucy, Ezra and their extraordinary manufactured friend. I know I did, but then again, I’m crazy about writer and illustrator Brian Selznick’s work.

Among his other books, Selznick illustrated The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (written by Barbara Kerley), the true story of a visionary Victorian artist who sculpted dinosaur statues and how his monumental creations ended up broken and buried under New York’s Central Park. The book won a prestigious Caldecott Award in 2002. The Houdini Box is about a young boy who meets his idol, the famous magician, and learns the secret of his greatest escape. And anyone who grew up loving Monsters will embrace Selznick’s The Boy of a Thousand Faces, about a boy who loves Lon Chaney, a TV horror host in a Phantom of the Opera mask named Mr. Shadows, and a mysterious beast that haunts the neighborhood ‘round Halloween time.

I haven’t picked up Selznick’s new book yet, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a mystery set in Paris at the turn of the last century. I plan to surprise myself with it at Christmas. Word is that Martin Scorsese has purchased the film rights. Selznick describes the 550-page tome as “not a exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.” It promises eccentric characters, an automaton, hidden messages, and an appearance by Georges Méliès!

The reviews are unanimous, Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a true masterpiece”. Now there’s a word someone could apply to most of Brian Selznick's work.

Books by Brian Selznick currently in print are: The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, The Boy of a Thousand Faces, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Here’s a short bio and a video of Brian Selznick on the Library of Congress National Book Festival site.

Here’s an interview with Selznick on Booksense.

Selznick writes about The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and the creative process on The Children’s Book Council site.

Here’s the official website for The Invention of Hugo Cabret — lots of fun links posted there — and a review of the book on TimesOnline.


ausonia said...

thanks for the good words about pinocchio!

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ausonia!