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The Invention of Hugo Cabret
written and illutrated by Brian Selznick
Brian Selznick has created a bit of an anomaly: though his book is a blend of visual and textual narrative, it isn't a graphic novel, it is hundreds of pages longer than the average picture book, and the term "illustrated novel" doesn't really address its particular nature. Specifically, unlike most of the books in any of the three aforementioned formats, the drawings and text in this novel work not in synchronous partnership but rather sequentially, with the story handed off from pages of text to pages of visual narrative, resulting in something that evokes an intricate and tension-filled silent movie.
These alternating narrative media tell the story of twelve-year-old orphan Hugo, a boy who desperately misses his recently deceased father and who struggles to hold his life together after a new tragedy, the disappearance and likely death of his uncle, Hugo's guardian. Hugo had been acting as an apprentice to his uncle, learning to set the clocks in a Paris train station; as long as he keeps the clocks set properly, suggesting his uncle’s continued presence, he can hide the fact that he is now living alone, stealing food to survive, and scavenging bits of machinery to pursue his dream: the restoration of a complex automaton that his father had found in a museum. At first, Hugo works from a notebook of diagrams that his father left behind, but after this is taken from him by an irate toymaker who catches Hugo stealing, he eventually discovers that he is talented enough to continue without it. The story also hints at broader mysteries with curious connections: the toymaker immediately recognizes the sketches of the automaton, a necklace worn by the toymaker's granddaughter is the last item needed by Hugo to complete the restoration, and the drawing that the automaton eventually produces has a dramatic impact on all of the characters.
Far from feeling coincidental or forced, however, the plot unfolds in satisfying layers, like a dramatic mystery film. And indeed, the careful pacing, heavy black frames that outline each page, and the sequential views that zoom in on a single image produce a remarkable cinematic effect. The nearly 300 pages of elegant pencil drawings, most combined in pages-long sequences, pick up where the text leaves off and sweep the reader along until the story is picked up again in words, sometimes twenty pages and several scenes later. The film influences are apparent in both the plot (the toymaker is the prolific filmmaker George Méliès, considered the father of science fiction movies) and in the visual images, several of which are photographed stills from Méliès' movies.
Avi's elegant Silent Movie (BCCB 4/03) recently explored this alluring genre, and Selznick ably picks up the thread, offering an engaging novel and intriguing end matter (author's note, film credits, and further reading list) that all but guarantee interest in the subject of silent film. It may well elicit some rather unexpected library requests for more information on early twentieth-century filmmaking; better yet, any library lucky enough to still have 16mm films in their collection will be perfectly equipped to offer young readers a rare glimpse into the quirkiness, beauty, and near magic of early moving pictures.
Dspite that sophisticated artistry, this remains a book firmly and appealingly intended for its young target audience. True, adults are likely to find it intriguing, and they will enjoy some of the subtleties that kids may miss (Remy Charlip posing as Georges Méliès, for example). However, the pacing, plot, and characters are all geared to young readers, who will find Hugo, the intrepid orphan racing against time and toward his goals, as compelling as the artistic tribute to cinema and forgotten filmic geniuses. Nor are they likely to mind the book's multiple layers; instead, they'll appreciate the ambition, embrace the complexities, and revel in the rare experience of an original and creative integration of art and text.
April Spisak, Reviewer
Cover image by Brian Selznick from The Invention of Hugo Cabret ©2007. Used by permission of Scholastic, Inc.
This page was last updated on April 1, 2007.