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.

A Few More Singularities Concerning Hugo Cabret's Adventures

Tem42 has a fine write-up reviewing this delightful novel, and reading that commentary may have served as my inflection point, where I was persuaded to search it out. I have only a few more enticements deserving mention, which have risen to the surface of my consciousness while moving through Selznick's fast-paced, extensively illustrated novel.

For instance, flipping through the illustrative action section in the Part I climax, I thought, Wow, these illustrations are something of a crude approximation of a movie!

The aspect I most wanted to bring to your attention is that two of the essential adult characters in Selznick's narrative are improvised on an actual couple: Georges Melies and his second wife, Jehanne d'Arcy (actress whom he met around the time he purchased the magic theatre, Robert-Houdin, Paris, ~1888). Melies began as an artist (to his father's displeasure), worked his way into set design/painting & creating illusions, and became an early director of cinematic productions. In fact, he directed more than 500 short films (1896-1913), e.g., A Trip to the Moon, 1902, which becomes a lodestone in the plot of the novel. Melies was an early creator of special effects, which included the rewinding of film to make multiple exposures, making motion-films from still sequences of drawings, i.e., a time-lapse technique, later used in making cartoon sequences, and the dissolving of an image into something else, etc.

One more item of interest, for curious readers wondering which Paris railway station it is where Hugo handles maintenance of the clocks, does not appear until Part II, Chapter 7. There is an old photograph used as an illustration in that chapter. In 1895 the Granville-Paris Express couldn't stop inside the Chemins de Fer de L'Ouest station due to faulty brakes. The engine and carriages careened 30 meters across the polished concourse floor, crashed through a wall, and plunged down onto the Place de Rennes below. Hugo had heard of this accident, and it features in his dreadful dream the night before an important visit. The photo shows the engine head-first into the paving stones after the accident. We don't know this station nowadays, because it was demolished in 1960 and became the site of Tour Montparnasse skyscraper with a new Gare Montparnasse built immediately to the southwest.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is very suitable for a drizzly, or snowy winter weekend. It could also be read to young children to teach them about the taboo against stealing. Be sure to let them leaf through the illustrations, and to encourage some discussion of why Hugo has to grab some food or scrap parts, despite knowing it is wrong to do so.


Sources

In addition to Brian Selznick's novel, I gathered facts from the "Georges Melies" and "Gare Montparnasse" entries in Wikipedia for the third and fourth paragraphs.

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