Monday, May 21, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Thanks to Geraldine Allen for such descriptive reflection on the illustrations.

Selznick, B. (2007). The invention of Hugo Cabret. New York. Scholastic Press.

            This intriguing hardcover trade book blends several genres: picture book, graphic novel, flip book, comic book, and movie. It is realistic fiction brimming with mystery and suspense, based on actual personalities and historic events. Appropriate for readers from grade 4 and up, its 526 pages have nearly 300 pages of doublespread pictures, including 3 early movie stills, with several drawings and film stills by pioneer French film maker, Georges Melies, whose life and work inspired the author to write the novel. The illustrations develop the plot through imagery, frame by frame, page by page, much like a silent movie, with the third person text revealing intricacies. It is literally a “page-turner” whose words flow as easily as the pictures.

            Except for red endpaper and flyleaf, front and back, the pages are black with black and white illustrations, creating the imaginative effect of the reader sitting in darkness watching a black and white movie. Each page of text is bordered in black, like a movie screen. The author’s realistic drawings were executed in graphite pencil crosshatching on Fabriano watercolor paper. Real people were his models, including Remy Charlip, writer and illustrator of children's books, dancer and choreographer.  His likeness is the central character, Georges. Typefaces used throughout are modern adaptations of attractive historical fonts and styles of handwriting.

            The story’s integral setting is Paris in the 1930s. Twelve-year-old Hugo Cabret, whose mother had already passed, lived with his father, a clockmaker, horologist, who worked part time in a museum. Hugo and his father spent happy times together going to the movies, reading, working on clocks, and talking about the connection between horology and magic. Hugo’s father had found a broken automaton (aw-TOM-ah-tan), a mechanical man, stored in the attic of the museum, and was trying to restore it, creating a detailed notebook in the process. One night while he was working after hours, there was a fire at the museum, in which Hugo’s father died. Hugo was taken in by his only living relative, a gruff alcoholic uncle whose job was to keep all the clocks in the large Paris train station wound and running smoothly. He taught Hugo the necessary skills, including how to steal food, then progressively abandoned the tasks to Hugo, until one night he didn’t come home at all. Hugo secretly continued to tend the clocks, collecting his uncle’s unopened paychecks so no one might miss him. He feared that if anyone found out, he would be forced to leave the small room at the station where he lived, be moved to an orphanage or locked in prison. Hugo had his father’s notebook, and the automaton that he salvaged from the ruins of the museum fire. For survival, Hugo had become a thief of food, then of other items, particularly from the toy stand in the station, where an unpleasant old man made and sold mechanical toys. Mystery after mystery unfolds as Hugo works to survive, keep his secrets, and restore the automaton, believing it will eventually write or draw an important message from his father. He befriends Isabelle, goddaughter of Papa Georges, the fearsome old toy maker, and others in his never dull drama of unraveling the questions.

            Hugo imagines the world as one big machine. “Machines never have extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.” (p 378) The author explained that he chose the book’s title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, because it refers to something that Hugo builds, and also to the fact that Hugo invents himself. In a way, we all invent ourselves, making ourselves into the person we want to be. Hugo invents a life for himself, and he even invents himself a family. Those concepts could be the big ideas of Hugo’s story. Other ideas include creativity and imagination and overcoming obstacles. Sample question: How might you overcome a particular obstacle that interferes with something you want to accomplish?

            The Invention of Hugo Cabret has earned high accolades, and is highly recommended.

            There has evolved a surrounding culture including its having been made into a 3-D major motion picture by Martin Scorsese in 2011:

            A picture book about the making of the movie is also available:

            Several excellent curriculum connections and lesson plans are provided in links from the author’s web site:;;;

            Another main inspiration for The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a book called Edison’s Eve: A Magical Quest for Mechanical Life by an author named Gaby Wood, about the history of automata.

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