The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It’s not often a book comes along that blends elements of the novel, the picture book, and the graphic novel all in one…and it works. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is one of those books. The story of Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of the Paris train station, is told via a skillful combination of narrative and illustration that evoke the flip books of my youth.

Hugo, the orphaned son of a master horologist (clockmaker), is taken in by his uncle, the clock-keeper at the Paris train station, after his father perishes in a fire at the museum where he had been working on fixing an automaton. Hugo’s uncle, a horologist but also a drunk, shows him how to care for the clocks in the station. When his uncle fails to return from a night of drinking, Hugo becomes the keeper of the clocks, but also manages to resurrect the automaton project that his father was working on. Hugo becomes obsessed with getting the mechanical man to work, thinking that the automaton contains a secret message from his father. Through the course of his work on the automaton, Hugo becomes involved with a young girl and an old toymaker who is much more than what he seems. Together, they unravel the mystery of the mechanical man, resulting in a rich and wondrous foray into the world of early movie-making.
Selznick uses pages of illustrations to tell portions of the story without words. Chapters are interspersed with page upon page of wordless drawings, which work to convey an unexpected tension and sense of expectation that mere words would never accomplish in a novel such as this. The illustrations, done in rough charcoal sketches, shrink or expand according to the plot — a convention which reminded me very much of Zoom by Istvan Banyai. Reading this 800 page book in a day was effortless, and as I read, I wondered if there has ever been a book nominated for both a Caldecott and a Newbery in the same year. Perhaps 2007 is that year.

Thanks to Kathy Wolf of the Rochester Public Library’s Children’s Center for recommending this one!