As author Brian Selznick himself describes it, Hugo Cabret is “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”
There are 544 pages, more than half of which are fabulously detailed, full-page charcoal drawings. Moreover, the drawings don’t just show what the words have already told, they pull the story forward in their own right, like snippets of silent film.
Hugo is a 12-year-old orphan boy living in the walls of a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century. He moves around behind the scenes, winding and fixing all the clocks in the station, a job that used to belong to his uncle before the man disappeared. Hugo must scrounge or steal what he needs to survive, since he can’t cash his missing uncle’s paychecks.
Hugo’s only possessions are two things his father left him when he died – a notebook full of sketches, and an obsession to fix the broken automaton detailed in those sketches. The automaton is a metal man hunched over a desk with pen in hand, and Hugo is sure that the message the machine’s gears were programmed to write would be profound and life-changing, if only the man to write again.
When the museum where the automaton is housed burns down, Hugo drags what’s left of the machine back to the train station. In an effort to fix it, he studies his father’s notebook and steals gears and parts from the cranky old man who runs the toy store.
This story is an intricately meshed web of history and fiction. Hugo Cabret brings together Selznicks’s fascination with the real-life father of science fiction movies, Georges Méliès, the filmmaker’s collection of automatons, and Selznick’s own knack for telling stories through pictures.
There are several great videos on Amazon including movie trailers and an interview with Selznick. In the interview Selznick describes the history of his book, and the research he did in order to get the details just right, and includes a few samples of the book’s illustrations.
This 2008 Caldecott Medal winner is suggested for kids 9-12, and is available at the Lancaster branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. But don’t let that stop you from buying The Invention of Hugo Cabret or any other book. Support your favorite author, and with any luck they’ll be able to keep writing great stories for us!