April 26, 2007


The Invention of Hugo Cabret. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $22.99.

      This is one of the best books in years for readers ages 8-12 – but to get them to pick it up, you’ll have to deal with the heft factor. At 534 pages, the book looms like a Dostoevsky novel when first seen on the shelf. But it is nothing of the sort – it is not, in fact, a traditional book in any sense. Brian Selznick, an award-winning illustrator of children’s books, has come up with an entirely new way to tell a tremendously engrossing story. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a bit like a traditional novel (but not really), a little like a graphic novel (but not quite), and a smidgen like a picture book (but not to a great extent). It is something new – which is what “novel” means, after all – and it is simply marvelous.

      Here is how Selznick tells the story: page after page consists of wordless drawings that advance the tale in important ways – and are beautiful to look at. Several hundred pages here have no words on them at all. When pages do have words, the words often fill no more than a couple of lines of type, although occasionally there are full pages of text. The text pages are interspersed with additional drawings that illustrate what is going on but do not in themselves advance the story. And the entire book looks something like a film strip, with black borders around all pages and a pacing that reflects the language of film as much as that of traditional narrative.

      This is more than mere cleverness. Film plays an important role – a crucial one, as it turns out – in the story of street urchin Hugo Cabret, who lives within the walls of a train station in France in 1931 and keeps the station’s clocks running on time. An orphan whose uncle (who is supposed to manage those clocks) has mysteriously disappeared, Hugo is in constant fear of being found living on his own and sent to an orphanage, so he keeps very much to himself – except that he is engaged in a great project: rebuilding a strange automaton that his father had once found. To get the parts (and food – Hugo cannot cash his uncle’s paychecks), Hugo steals. In particular, he picks up small mechanical toys from a stand in the station, until one day he is discovered…setting in motion a series of amazing revelations that continue to unfold right through to the last page of text, when readers finally learn (in a wonderful piece of sleight of hand) what the book’s title refers to.

      Automata are important not only within the book but also to its genesis. Parents unsure whether their kids will take to this work ought to have an online look at an automaton now kept at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Selznick provides the URL in his Acknowledgments after the story: www.fi.edu/pieces/knox/automaton. A quick trip to this site ought to be enough, all on its own, to enrapture potential readers and pull them into this book. The story here, for all its Dickensian elements, is ultimately a delightful and uplifting one, and the way it is told is simply amazing – magical in all the right ways. And “magical,” as readers will discover, is just the right adjective to describe The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

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