A Closer Look: Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick

I confess: I passed by this book many times before I ever took note of it. The cover is an extremely close picture of an eye, so close that it borders on abstraction. The pupil’s central inky pool is surrounded by a radial sea of emerald edged with brown. A moon-like highlight floats just off center. I thought it was a photograph.

It is not.

Here on the cover is the first display of Brian Selznick’s artistic mastery, so carefully rendered I missed it entirely. 

Shame on me! I’ve been a Selznick fan for over ten years, and whenever I see a new book of his I’m sure to grab it. Yet Kaleidoscope was so unexpected, the cover so different from his recognizable soft-realism, the book so slim compared to his other lavishly illustrated 600-page stories, that I didn’t even notice his name on the cover.

Until, that is, the day I finally did. Of course I immediately borrowed it, and I read it in one sitting. It only took an hour or two. The book is short, and it comprises stories that are even shorter – a few pages at most. Each little chapter is marked by an illustration that is resoundingly Selznick in style, and kaleidoscopic fractals divide one story from the next. The chapters are fragments of standalone narrative, but as the book unfolds, central themes and surprising connections begin to emerge.

There is something that I can only describe as the “Selznick mood” which is present in almost all of his work. His trademark grayscale illustrations are full of subtleties and shadows; every object, every figure, every sunbeam, every stone has been gently teased into existence in a way that is perfectly, indisputably, real. Furthermore, his unique way of combining art and words changes the reading experience. Discerning a story from both text and illustrations causes the reader to slow down and use different parts of their mind, bringing bits together into something coherent. His storytelling is gentle, even as he explores the depths of human emotion. In picture, prose, and plot, Selznick simultaneously maintains a ponderous air of wonder and a profound note of melancholy. I don’t know how he does it, but I certainly can feel it.

Kaleidoscope is primarily text with a more traditional use of illustration, but that same gentleness is present throughout. The first-person narration is earnest and sweet, even as the speaker navigates mystery and sorrow. Blank pages are slipped in between the stories and the art, reminding the reader to take a moment and reflect. (Functionally, these blank pages act as a placeholder whenever the text ends on a verso page and the next illustration is a two-page spread. But I think it also gives the reader’s mind a place to pause and breathe.) The book is also divided into three larger sections, Morning, Afternoon, and Night; and as the stories begin to layer over each other, they evoke the feeling of viewing something familiar in a different light. This book is a journey through time and space, the real and the imaginary, the true and the wished for.

A more complex kind of storytelling, I’d recommend this book for older children or any adult who has looked up at the moon or out at the sea. I have not really discussed the book’s plot or themes, because it’s best to read this book with nothing but a ready mind. Any second-hand analysis I could offer would make as much sense as my trying to describe what I see in a kaleidoscope.

It’s best to simply see for yourself.


Explore the work of Brian Selznick with these titles from WPPL’s collection!