The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is a 527 page book that is told with both text and illustration. It tells the story of Hugo, a boy who lives in a Paris train station. It won the Caldecott medal in 2008; the movie version, “Hugo”, was directed by Martin Scorsese and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2012.
Hugo Cabret lives in a Paris train station in the 1930s. He is an orphan; he had been living with a drunken uncle, who kept the clocks at the train station, but he disappeared and Hugo presumes he is dead. In order to keep from being evicted from the train station, Hugo keeps the clocks going in his uncle’s absence. Hugo’s father was a watchmaker and passed on his love of machinery and invention to Hugo. Before his death in a fire, Hugo’s father had found an automaton (a mechanical man) and was working on fixing it up when he died. Hugo has taken over his father’s fixation on the man and is trying to get the machine to work by using his father’s old notebook.
There is a toy shop in the train station that Hugo is fascinated by — it’s run by an older man and occasionally a girl about his age. Hugo occasionally steals parts for his automaton from the toy shop, until one day he’s caught by the man. The man takes Hugo’s notebook, with the drawings of the automaton, and refuses to give it back, much to Hugo’s horror. Hugo hesitantly befriends the girl, the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle. Isabelle loves movies and sneaks in with the help of a worker there, Etienne — she has to sneak in because her godfather won’t pay for her movie tickets. Etienne is a film student and loves films.
Hugo gets the automaton built but it is missing a heart shape in the back. Hugo recognizes the heart shape in a key that Isabelle wears around her neck, so he surreptitiously steals it. She confronts him about stealing it and follows him to the clocks, where he stays and together they turn the key in the back of the automaton and it draws an image of an object hitting the moon, surrounded by stars and clouds. It’s a scene that Hugo’s father had described to him as part of his favorite movie, “A Trip to the Moon.” The automaton then signs a name on the image — Georges Melies.
Georges Melies was an illusionist turned filmmaker at the turn of the 20th century. Georges Melies is also the name of Isabelle’s godfather. They are the same person!!!!! Crazy.
Etienne tells them that he’s learned all about Georges Melies, that his teacher, Rene Tabard, is a huge fan, and Isabelle invites them to their apartment to see some of Georges’s movies, as they are rumored to all have been destroyed. Unfortunately, she didn’t get permission from Papa Georges or Mama Jeanne. Jeanne is hesitant to allow them to stay, as Georges is sensitive to any discussion of his former glory, but Rene tells her thathe has discovered an old movie of his and they sit down to watch it. When the film is over, Georges has emerged from his room and has been watching with them, with tears in his eyes. He takes the projector they had brought and locks himself in his room — when Isabelle and Hugo pick the lock, they discover Georges going through trunks of his old movie paraphernalia.
Hugo reveals to Georges that he has the automaton working and Georges tells him to go to the train station to fetch it. Unfortunately, when he gets there, the Station Inspector is after him — Hugo’s uncles body has been found and Hugo has been discovered living there, as well as the petty theft of food he’s been committing; the Station Inspector chases him through the station, finally catching him when Hugo is almost hit by an oncoming train.
He is saved from being taken to an orphanage by Georges and Isabelle, who have grown suspicious when it took Hugo so long to return. Georges accepts responsibility for Hugo, enveloping him in his cape as he leads Hugo and Isabelle out of the station.
Six months later, Hugo, Isabelle, and the Melieses are attending a French Film Academy celebration of the films of Georges Melies. When the showing of his films are over, Georges tells Hugo that he fully expects Hugo to take over as Professor Alcofrisbas, a character from Georges’ films who could turn anything into gold. It is then revealed that Hugo has indeed done just that — through the words and pictures of the book.
This book is incredible. It’s not a novel, but not a picture book; not a graphic novel either, but a completely original creation and interpretation of storytelling. The pictures told as much of the story as the words did. Though, as a reader, I found it mildly frustrating to be engrossed in the story and suddenly have the narration turn into a series of pictures, the addition of the stills of Georges Melies’ movies were incredible. The illustrations added an element to the story that pure description and imagery would not have been able to accomplish.
Selznick’s “novel in words and pictures,” an intriguing mystery set in 1930s Paris about an orphan, a salvaged clockwork invention, and a celebrated filmmaker, resuscitates an anemic genre-the illustrated novel-and takes it to a whole new level. The result is somewhat similar to a graphic novel, but experiencing its mix of silvery pencil drawings and narrative interludes is ultimately more akin to watching a silent film. Indeed, movies and the wonder they inspire, “like seeing dreams in the middle of the day,” are central to the story, and Selznick expresses an obvious passion for cinema in ways both visual (successive pictures, set against black frames as if projected on a darkened screen, mimic slow zooms and dramatic cuts) and thematic (the convoluted plot involves director Georges M’eli’es, particularly his fanciful 1902 masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon .) This hybrid creation, which also includes movie stills and archival photographs, is surprising and often lovely, but the orphan’s story is overshadowed by the book’s artistic and historical concerns (the heady extent of which are revealed in concluding notes about Selznick’s inspirations, from the Lumi’ere brothers to Fran’eois Truffaut). Nonetheless, bookmaking this ambitious demands and deserves attention-which it will surely receive from children attracted by a novel in which a complex narrative is equally advanced by things both read and seen.
Here is a true masterpiece—an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching.Twelve-year-old orphan Hugo lives in the walls of a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century, where he tends to the clocks and filches what he needs to survive. Hugo’s recently deceased father, a clockmaker, worked in a museum where he discovered an automaton: a human-like figure seated at a desk, pen in hand, as if ready to deliver a message. After his father showed Hugo the robot, the boy became just as obsessed with getting the automaton to function as his father had been, and the man gave his son one of the notebooks he used to record the automaton’s inner workings. The plot grows as intricate as the robot’s gears and mechanisms […] To Selznick’s credit, the coincidences all feel carefully orchestrated; epiphany after epiphany occurs before the book comes to its sumptuous, glorious end. Selznick hints at the toymaker’s hidden identity […] through impressive use of meticulous charcoal drawings that grow or shrink against black backdrops, in pages-long sequences. They display the same item in increasingly tight focus or pan across scenes the way a camera might. The plot ultimately has much to do with the history of the movies, and Selznick’s genius lies in his expert use of such a visual style to spotlight the role of this highly visual media. A standout achievement.
This book lends itself easily to be a book used in a book club for young teens — it would be easy to have kids read this book and come to see the movie for a teen movie night.
Mattson, J. (2007). The invention of hugo cabret. School Library Journal, 103(9/10), 97. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/23776855/invention-hugo-cabret
Publisher’s Weekly. (2007). Children’s review: The invention of hugo cabret. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-439-81378-5
Selznick, B. (2007). The invention of hugo cabret. New York: Scholastic.