Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with its hundreds of charcoal illustrations, film stills and hefty length, may be an atypical children’s book but the 2007 tome received much-deserved praise — it was awarded the Caldecott Medal last year and is being adapted for the screen.

Author Brian Selznick made a name for himself as an illustrator of children’s books, but The Invention of Hugo Cabret should make him a household name in the world of children’s literature. But with complex narrative structures, a richly imagined plot and more than 500 pages, The Invention of Hugo Cabret holds appeal for adults as well, particularly those with an interest in early cinema, a topic Selznick explores with a combination of deftness and whimsy.

The story, which is set in the 1930s, follows 12-year-old Hugo Cabret, who lives in a Paris train station, repairing clocks. An orphan, Hugo lives with his uncle, who mysteriously disappears one night, forcing Hugo to maintain a façade that his uncle is alive so he will not be sent to live in an orphanage.

Keeping him going is the fact that he holds a notebook bequeathed to him by his father, who repaired an automaton that he discovered in an old museum and wrote step-by-step instructions on how to do so in the notebook. A fire at the museum destroys the automaton and kills Hugo’s father, so for Hugo, finding and repairing the mechanical figure is imperative, since he is convinced that his father will be able to send him a message through the automaton.

Unfortunately for Hugo, who has brought the broken automaton to the station, he is forced to hand over the notebook to the man who runs the toy shop in the train station after he tries to steal toy parts. Hugo is unable to fix it until he meets a young girl, Isabelle, who wears the key to the automaton around her neck. Isabelle lives with the old man who runs the toyshop and she steals the notebook back for Hugo. Once repaired, the automaton draws a picture that sets the lives of all the characters in flux as strange histories and relationships emerge.

Words and illustrations pick up where the other left off seamlessly: pictures don’t illustrate the text; rather they stand alone, carrying the story forward. This device allows Selznick to tell a story that blends the literary and the artistic, appealing to the senses and drawing the reader further into the imaginative world that the author inhabits.

Selznick’s style, consisting of short paragraphs and sentences, is perfect for the 9-12 range, but The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more Hemingway novel than Dick and Jane book. Selznick writes:
Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I’m not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is closely tied to the early days of cinema — Selznick delves into a semi-fictionalized plumbing of early French filmmaker Georges Méliès, who appears as a character in the book, and includes film stills from Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, a classic 1902 short. The focus on early film, coupled with illustrations, gives the book a cinematic quality that filmmakers will likely find easy to harness.

Adapted from a review originally published in the Washington Blade.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED THIS BOOK. It holds an everlasting spot on my bookshelf.