Arts and Culture

Author Brian Selznick explores nature's point of view in the 500 pages of 'Big Tree'

An illustration of seed balls in a tree
An illustration from Brian Selznick's "Big Tree," which tells the story of two seeds released into the world looking to find a place to take root and grow.
Artwork by Brian Selznick © 2023 Universal Studios

For the lucky few, storytelling can go like this: a writer pens a novel, it sells well and then someone makes a movie based on the book, which also does well.

That happened to writer Brian Selznick, whose illustrated novels “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and “Wonderstruck” both became feature films.

However his latest book, “Big Tree,” took the opposite path.

“I got a call from Steven Spielberg asking me to write a movie based on an idea that he had, which was as shocking and thrilling as it might sound. And the idea that he had was to make a movie about nature, from nature's point of view. He'd never seen never seen anything like that,” Selznick told MPR news.

Selznick wrote a story about two tiny sycamore seeds named Louise and Merwyn. They begin life in a seed ball growing on their mother, a gigantic and wise tree standing tall in the mists of prehistory.

“And I set it at the end of the Cretaceous era, right before the meteorite hits the planet,” Selznick said. “So there's a kind of existential threat to the climate and to the world, the way there is right now.”

Author and book cover
Brian Selnick's latest book, "Big Tree," was inspired by an idea suggested by Steven Spielberg.
Photo courtesy of Brittany Cruz-Fejeran; book cover courtesy of Scholastic Press

Forests and fungi

In preparation, Selznick delved into the evolutionary history of trees and their lifecycle. He also found out about their key role in complex ecosystems, whether it's deep in the forest or on the side of a busy urban avenue. He consulted a paleobotanist who studies ancient plants and he hiked with park rangers through forests.

“I learned about the mycorrhizal system, which some people may have heard about, which is the underground fungal system, which connects all the roots of the trees in a forest, passing along information. And it's really, in many ways, how the trees of a forest survive and what makes them from individual trees into a community.“

Then the pandemic hit. Selznick says it became clear the movie wouldn't be made. But he'd fallen in love with the “Big Tree” story. So the filmscript morphed into drawings and text for a book. There was one problem. Selznick admits he has never liked drawing trees because they are so complicated. Then he had an epiphany:

“I realized that with the way I draw and the pencil, because most of the most of my work, and the drawings in ‘Big Tree’ are all done with a pencil, I could use the fog, I could use mist as a way to both obscure the details of the forest, while evoking the mystery of the story."

Illustration of seeds
Brian Selznick's graphic novel tells the story of two tiny seeds released into a huge and dangerous world.
Artwork by Brian Selznick © 2023 Universal Studios

Perilous journey — and Meryl Streep!

The atmospheric illustrations hang together with Selznick's prose. Readers follow Louise and Merwyn as they begin the perilous journey to find a good place to take root.

“Big Tree” became a big book, clocking in at well over 500 pages.

When it was done, Selznik took a chance and sent a copy to Meryl Streep, asking her to do the audiobook. And she said yes. Selznik says he and audio book producer Paul Gagne spent the day with her in the studio.

“When she sat down, she said to me and Paul, ‘Would you like me to read this with my own voice or with different voices?’ And me and Paul looked at each other and said, ‘Could you do different voices, please?’”

And so she did about 25 of them, describing the wonders and the terrors of the prehistoric world.

Listen to Meryl Streep read from Brian Selznick's "Big Tree" as a giant sycamore receives warning from mycorrhizal fungi about approaching danger

“Big Tree” raises questions about how we care for our home planet. Selznick will speak to that when he visits the University of St Thomas in St Paul Wednesday evening.

“I'll be able to dive into a little bit more depth with each of these stories about the creation of ‘Big Tree’ about the science,” he said “I have a big slide presentation with visuals and videos that I've made about the science behind the story.”

Hefty advantages

As mentioned, “Big Tree" is a big book — heavy too. Which you might think would be a deterrent to young readers. But Selznick discovered with his earlier book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that heft can be a selling point, as can being so densely illustrated.

“Teachers and parents began to tell me that kids who are having some trouble reading found that because the story is told visually for so much of the book, they were able to propel themselves into the story and understand and read it themselves,” he said. “And then for kids who are just learning to read, walking around with a nearly 600 page book that weighs two and a half pounds actually becomes a point of pride. I've had adults tell me it's the first 600 page book they've ever read.”

Selznick says it's a point of pride to him to make his books beautiful so his young readers will know someone took a lot of time to create something they will treasure and love.

Illustration of two people looking at a seedling in a pot
"Big Tree" is an adventure story, but it is based on scientific fact and tries to connect readers of all ages to the stories of the trees around them.
Artwork by Brian Selznick © 2023 Universal Studios
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