The Invention of Hugo Cabret
written and illustrated by
Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, New York, 2007.

This is a particularly nice book. A particularly nice book. It is one of those books that needs to be enjoyed in the hardback edition, and sadly, as a Scholastic book for elementary and middle school aged children, it is mostly going to be read in the paperback. Don't let that happen to you.

This book is something akin to a graphic novel, except that it isn't quite... It is a chapter book with frequent breaks for pages of highly-detailed charcoal sketches; nearly 300 of its 550 pages are illustrations. These further the plot and are an important part of the story, but they do not contain any speech balloons or text; they are all full-page and quite traditional illustrations.

While the book is well designed, the illustrations well-done, and the story well-written, the downside is that the story is predictable. Set in Paris circa 1930, it is the tale of a young orphan boy, Hugo, who was the son of a clockmaker, and who is orphaned a second time when his uncle, the drunken timekeeper of the Paris train station, mysteriously disappears. He continues to secretly maintain the clocks, a job that he was doing for his uncle anyway, so that he can remain in his uncle's apartment over the train station. He is too scared to cash the checks sent to his uncle every month, so he takes to stealing to feed himself.

Hugo has a more important goal than simply hiding in the walls and attics of the station, however. His father had been working on repairing a mysterious and immensely complicated automaton when he died in a fire. Hugo saved the remains of the device from the ruins, and with the help of his father's notes he is trying to complete the repairs. Which requires him to steal even more.

Eventually he gets caught, but this results in him meeting a number of interesting people with interesting secrets, who hold tantalizing clues as to the origin and function of the mysterious automaton. The story leads us through the secrets of clockmakers, magicians, and filmmakers, who are all the same sort of people -- those who love bringing dreams to life.

While the plot is not particularly unique, the setting is, and that alone makes the story worth reading. The characters are pleasing, and the story is fast moving and engaging. It is written for ages 9-12, but it was recommended to me by a number of well-aged individuals, and seems to be a bit more of a sensation among the older set than the younger. This may be in part due to the artiness of the book, with black-framed pages and detailed illustrations; it might also be due to its rather imposing size. 550 pages is a lot for a 9-year-old, at least until they open it up and find that it is mostly pictures and large white margins.

The automaton in the story does indeed exist, and was indeed found in ruins, damaged by a fire. It was donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1928. It has been repaired and is on display, where it does indeed do just what it does in the story (Spoilers!); in some ways the real-life machine is more impressive than the fictional one, although Selznick's artwork exaggerates some aspects a bit. It is well worth checking out, and can be found here.

This book was made into the movie Hugo.

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