Author: Brian Selznick
Genre: Historical, 30s, Middle Grade
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: March 1st 2007
Hardcover: 533 pages
Orphan Hugo Cabret lives in a wall. His secret home is etched out in the crevices of a busy Paris train station. Part-time clock keeper, part-time thief, he leads a life of quiet routine until he gets involved with an eccentric, bookish young girl and an angry old man who runs a toy booth in the station. The Invention of Hugo Cabret unfolds its cryptic, magical story in a format that blends elements of picture book, novel, graphic novel, and film. Caldecott Honor-winning author-illustrator Brian Selznick has fashioned an intricate puzzle story that binds the reader like a mesmerist’s spell.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I’ve seen this book around for a long, long time and always wanted to read it. Then I heard that Martin Scorcese is directing a movie based on the book and I just HAD to read it.
1931. Hugo Cabret is an orphaned boy who lives behind the walls of a Parisian train station working as his uncle’s apprentice as the station’s clock keeper. When his uncle goes missing, Hugo has no choice but to keep tending to the clocks, pretending his uncle is still around in order to at least have a place to live. His life is hard and most of his free time is spent around his most treasured possessions: his late father’s broken automaton, rescued from the ruins of an old museum and the notebook that contains directions on how to fix it. Hugo believes that once fixed, the automaton will relay a message from his father and since all of his hopes and dreams rely heavily on this belief he will stop at nothing from making it happen – even stealing the small pieces necessary to put it back together from the toy booth at the station. Until he ends up caught in flagrante delicto by the old man who owns the booth, starting a relationship that will change his life forever, once he finds out who the man really is.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a different sort of book: amongst its 533 pages, 284 contain pictures (original illustrations as well as real photographs from the time period) but I cannot really say that this is an illustrated book nor it is a graphic novel. The pictures tell part of the story – albeit a silent one – as much as the writing, in traditional narrative, does. In that sense, the images are not complementary, they are essential. Without them the story would not exist. As a format, it works wonderfully: it is evocative, beautifully capturing the time period and the Paris of the early 30s.
But more than that: although this a story about an orphaned boy, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is at its core a story about early cinema inspired by the life and work of Georges Méliès, about the beginnings of filmmaking and about how truly magical it was. It relates the reactions of those early audiences, it explores the closeness between magicians and filmmakers and how affecting and life-changing movies can be. Because of that, I can’t help but to think of the illustrations working as a silent movie contained within these pages and I loved this aspect of the book as much as I loved the presence of automata and clock-making.
Having said that, although I loved the idea of the book and how the illustrations/images were part of the narrative, I wasn’t completely won over by the prose because at times it felt too …simplistic. It is as though all the magic was concentrated on the format rather than on the characters and the story. I think the latter suffered less though because the premise was cool, and despite some contrivances the plot comes together perfectly in the end – like clock-work, or like the pieces of an automaton.
Which brings me to the characters – they are likeable but not really well developed. Although I loved the story, I only liked the characters and didn’t really love them. Although I usually don’t think that characters need to be likeable or loveable for a story to work, I do personally believe that for a story like this particular one to truly, really work in capturing its audience (adult or not), readers should be connected with the characters and with their plight. But there was a definite lack of emotional depth that stemmed from the lacklustre writing. And that was one very important thing missing from a book that is supposed to be magical. As it stands, it has its wonderful moments but for me it lacked the one thing that it would make it awesome.
Since the illustrations are such a huge part of the narrative, here are some of them:
Additional Thoughts: I am really looking forward to the movie – I think it might work better in that format. The trailer looks awesome:
7 – Very Good
Buy the Book: