Tuesday, June 4, 2013


The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Selznick, Brian.  2007.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  New York:  Scholastic Press. 
ISBN 13: 978-0-439-81378-5

The story is a tale of a young orphan boy named Hugo who desperately wants to fix a mechanical man that can write, believing the machine will deliver a message from his deceased father who had been working on the machine before he died.  Hugo reluctantly becomes friends with another orphan, a girl who is the god-child of a toy maker that Hugo has been stealing from, using the toys as parts to repair the mechanical man.  When the mechanical man proves to be a creation of the girl’s god-father, Papa Georges, they learn the god-father used to be a famous film maker in the earliest days of film who has since declined into ill-health as his films had been repeatedly ignored and lost over time.  Hugo must decide who and what he will become, and in the process, helps Papa Georges remember and celebrate who he was and still can be. 
This work is very unusual, in that it is a combination of novel, picture book, graphic novel and even reminiscent of an old-fashioned silent black and white movie.  In 2008, Selznick won the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished picture book of the year.  As one might expect, therefore, illustrations play a large role in communicating mood and advancing the plot.  It is definitely not a traditional picture book, but children would need to be able to see the drawings if any excerpts are used in any read-alouds.  The illustrations are pencil within a black frame, often richly dark and mysterious, much like the secrets that are woven throughout the story.  The art does a fantastic job of reflecting the black and white films around which the plot revolves.

Any child who reads Hugo will doubtless feel a huge sense of accomplishment, due to the enormous size of the book.  I felt intimidated when I saw it!  However, due to the many illustrations, the book moves much faster than expected.  There are 284 pages of drawings, making it feel much like a graphic novel.  Often several pages of illustrations in a row carry the plot.  There is also a great deal of white space on many of the text pages.  The book is 526 pages long, so some students will undoubtedly shy away just looking at it, but that would be a mistake.  

This is a book that will appeal to both girls and boys.  Research has documented the loss of boy readers once they reach upper elementary ages and middle school.  They tend to read differently than girls, as discussed in the article, “Books and Boys,” by Jane McFann (available online at http://www.readingrockets.org/article/23978 .)  Given the majority of elementary and middle school teachers and librarians are females, they also often inadvertently choose books that appeal primarily to girls.  Studies suggest that girls are willing to read books with boy protagonists, but boys are not quite as flexible about reading books with girl protagonists.  Hugo contains action and plenty of mystery, and the main character is a boy.  Thus, it is a good book to recommend to boys as well as girls.

The story is touching, with themes related to family, searching for your own calling and finding a complete sense of self.  Publishers Weekly suggests it is suitable for ages 9-12 (Amazon says ages 8 and up), but I think that it is certainly still appropriate for older ages even though Hugo is only twelve in the story.   Note that Hugo’s desperate desire for the last message of his father could be very painful for a child who has lost a parent.  

“Complete genius”  Horn Book, starred review.

“Here is a true masterpiece—an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching.”  Publishers Weekly, starred review

"With characteristic intelligence, exquisite images and a breathtaking design, Selznick shatters conventions related to the art of bookmaking in this magical mystery set in the 1930s Paris.”  School Library Journal, starred review 

“Visually stunning,” San Antonio Express-News  (I had to include The Express-News-- I live in San Antonio!)

“Evokes wonder…like a silent film on paper.”  The New York Times

Los Angeles Times Favorite Children’s Book of 2007

Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2007


  • Brian Selznick is a well-known illustrator, and won a Caldecott Honor award for his illustrations in  The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley.  He also won awards for his work on the books, Walt Whitman: Words for America (also by Barbara Kerley) and When Marian Sang, by Pam Munoz Ryan.  It would be interesting to compare his work from these books. 
  • In a classroom or family setting, it would be wonderful to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, then watch the movie and compare/contrast the two. You can read more about the movie on Selznick's website.
  • Consider finding a nonfiction book on the real Georges Méliès.  This filmmaker did exist, though his personality and family was fabricated for the story.  Several of his drawings are included in the book, with permission.  But readers could learn more about the historical figure himself or his works of automata (moving machines as in the story.)  What was real in history?  What was added?  The Acknowledgements section of the book address these concerns.Additionally, Brian Selznick thoughtfully includes a wonderful page on his website that provides a great deal of historical information on Georges Méliès
  • A study on early film and film-making techniques might be interesting for older readers.
  • The opening set of drawings from the book is online (on his site) shown in sequence so that it looks almost like a movie.  Worth viewing!  His website is definitely worth exploring.

As mentioned, I was very intimidated by the size of the book during a summer session with plenty of other work, but I had heard so many good things about it that I wanted to read it.  Plus, I knew there had been a movie made based on it.  I wanted to see the movie, but I hate seeing movies before reading the books on which they are based.  I read it in one sitting.  I did not actually cry, but I did get choked up a few times near the end.  The art is inspiring, especially for anyone who has ever drawn or dabbled in art his or herself.  I felt like getting a pencil and trying to draw something!

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