In someone less genuine, the word might sound affected. But for the irrepressibly curious Mr. Selznick, it merely describes how he feels about so many things.
It is also an obvious source of his talent. His obsessions with old French movies, automatons, clockworks and the filmmaker Georges Méliès inspired “Hugo,” which earlier this month won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children.
At 533 pages it is the longest book ever to win that award, although more than 300 of those pages are pictures that, like movie storyboard frames, propel the story forward. In the novel, a boy who lives in an attic in a Paris train station desperately tries to fix a broken automaton — a kind of robot — that also interests a mysterious toy-stall owner (who turns out to be Méliès) and a young girl.
“The way the illustrations told the story was so exquisite,” said Karen Breen, chairwoman of the Caldecott judges committee and the children’s book review editor at Kirkus Reviews. “It was a favorite right from the start.”
The book, published last year by Scholastic Press, was a finalist for a National Book Award in young people’s literature. It has spent 42 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books and sold 130,000 copies in hardcover, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales.
Mr. Selznick, who is tall and lean and has wavy brown hair, wears round black-rimmed glasses that make him look like a grown-up Harry Potter. He eagerly excavated items he collected while researching “Hugo”: a small chest of drawers packed with 19th-century pocket watch parts bought at a flea market in Paris; two sketches of Cupid riding in a chariot that had been drawn by an actual automaton housed in a Philadelphia museum.
“While I was working on the book,” Mr. Selznick said, “there were people who said, ‘You’re doing a book about French silent movies and clocks for kids? That sounds like a very bad idea.’ ” But, he said, his editor told him, “If these elements are important to the main character they will be important to the reader.”
Mr. Selznick, whose grandfather was a cousin of the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, grew up in East Brunswick, N.J., the oldest of three children. He always knew he wanted to do something involving art, but rejected perpetual suggestions that he should illustrate children’s books. At the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, he even skipped a visiting lecture by Maurice Sendak.
“Everyone was clamoring to get in,” Mr. Selznick said. “Now I feel extremely stupid.”
Instead he immersed himself in the theater scene at nearby Brown University, and then applied for a spot in set design at the Yale School of Drama. He was rejected, and he started to think that maybe his family and friends were right about the children’s books.
He took a job at the Eeyore’s Books for Children in Manhattan, now defunct, and began writing and drawing “The Houdini Box,” about a boy who almost meets the great magician. The book was published in 1991.
He started getting commissions to draw for other authors, and attracted the attention of Tracy Mack, a Scholastic editor. They worked together on several titles, including biographies of Walt Whitman and Marian Anderson for children.
Mr. Selznick loved the work, but it started to feel insufficient. “I just suddenly saw myself for the rest of my life illustrating picture-book biographies,” he said. “I didn’t want to be doing the same thing forever.”
A six-month funk followed. Mr. Selznick spent time reading and ruminating. Then a fragment of an old idea resurfaced when he remembered being captivated by “A Trip to the Moon,” one of Méliès’s early movies, and learned that Méliès had once owned — and then discarded — a collection of automatons.
Mr. Selznick wrote a 30-page draft — without pictures — and submitted it to Ms. Mack. The outline of the story was there, including Hugo, the automaton, the old man and the little girl.
He gorged on old French movies like François Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and René Clair’s “Under the Roofs of Paris.” Homages to both appear in the book. As he started to think about how movies told stories, Mr. Selznick said, he realized that he could do something similar with his book.
Mr. Selznick said he still needed help from Ms. Mack and another editor, Leslie Budnick, to prune the remaining prose.
Because he tended to think in pictures, he just described what he saw in his head. He gave an example: “Hugo turned to the old man and the old man looked at Hugo and Hugo looked up and said ‘Give me back my notebook’ and the old man put his hand on his hips and said ‘I’m not going to give you back your notebook’ and Hugo got really mad and spit on the ground.”
The editors’ suggestion: “Give me back my notebook.” “No.”
“And suddenly,” Mr. Selznick said, “it was a scene.”
Though he didn’t give many details, Mr. Selznick said he has hatched another novel that will, like “Hugo,” be told partly in pictures.
Ms. Mack said that for many authors, a book like “Hugo” would have crowned a career. But, she said, “To me, this is just the beginning for Brian.”