The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 9-12

The thing author/illustrator Brian Selznick shares with his character, Hugo Cabret, is single-minded vision.

Incredibly, this instant classic won 2008's Caldecott Medal for illustration. Now you might say, "Well, some book had to win."

Yes, but that book tends to be a book for young children, a traditional picture book. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is anything but.

Selznick's book stands out in another way too. Where most book illustrations illuminate the text, Selznick uses illustrations to replace text.

In other words, sometimes Selznick is telling the story with words. Sometimes he is telling it with pictures.

(That makes this, among other things, a brilliant book to present to an older child who struggles with reading. Textwise, there's probably only the equivalent of about 100 pages here. That means you can present your reluctant reader with a 500 page tome that he/she will breeze through with relatively little effort. Imagine the pride!)

Selznick has a number of personal passions that he brings together with this book.

  • Magic tricks
  • Automata
  • Early movies, particularly the dreamscapes of French filmmaker (and magician) Georges Méliès

(What are automata, or automatons? Think elaborate wind-up toys designed to do impressive, singular tasks, with inner workings like clocks.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret gives us Hugo, a boy who finds himself orphaned in 1931 Paris. The alternatives being jail or an orphanage (not much better than prison then) he lives in the bowels of a train station, where his continued existence depends on his skills as a thief (he needs to eat!) and as a horologist (a fixer of clocks).

If Hugo can't keep the station's various clocks running on time, the Station Inspector will know that Hugo's drunken uncle has vanished and Hugo will certainly be found out.

Yes, Hugo has a precarious existence and more concerns than any child should. Add to them what is almost a spiritual quest: before his father was killed, he was engrossed in the repair of a rather phenomenal automaton.

The automaton, built to look like a man with a pen sitting at a table, is clearly designed to write something. Hugo believes that whatever the robot is designed to write will tell him, Hugo, what to do with his life, because what he's doing is not at all sustainable.

Hugo is a very stressed kid.

He needs feminine influence to draw him out of his shell, and fortunately a very patient young girl appears on the scene: Isabelle. An orphan herself, she lives with the owner of the train station's toy store, the place Hugo regularly shoplifts from for parts for his automaton.

Well, all the elements are in place for an often dark but eventually exultant tale of childhood adventure, discovery, and the unspooling of many mysteries. Think of Hugo as a Harry Potter figure, but without all the advantages of just happening to be the world's most innately talented wizard. Review continues.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Selznick's drawings are all from pencil, all black and white, but nonetheless wondrous and cinematic. Drawings will depict action and then a zooming in on the significant. A series of drawings might be 20 pages long.

(Imagine the joy it'll bring a reluctant reader as he breezes through 20 pages without having to read a thing! Add to that that the average text page is only about half full of words.)

The title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is actually a bit misleading. It refers to an automata Hugo creates in adulthood, after the book is over, in his grown-up persona of Professor H. Alcofrisbas. Review continues.

triptych from 'Hugo Cabret'

Hugo does do a lot of growing up in this book. He learns to open up and to trust and to care about other people as well. (And presumably to stop stealing.) He ends up with a safe home with Isabelle and adoptive father, Papa George, who turns out to be the long-lost magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès. (A real character, though Hugo and Isabelle are fiction.)

Tremendous book. Give The Invention of Hugo Cabret an impressively wide space on your child's bookshelf.

More children's book award winners.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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