Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Selznick, Brian. 2007. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic.

This 526-page book is the unlikely winner of this year’s Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to “the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year.” In most years, the Caldecott Medal is awarded to a picture book for young children. There was much discussion about whether or not a book of this type and length, “twenty-six thousand one hundred and fifty-nine words,” belonged in contention for the award. Its nearly 300 pictures, however, sealed the deal and it is a watershed book in children’s literature.

Most of the artwork consists of Selznick’s pencil drawings, but there are also several stills from early motion pictures, and a few drawings by the famous French filmmaker, George Méliès. Selznick’s pencil drawings are incredibly lifelike and detailed. Parts of the story (including a memorable chase scene) are told only through drawings, sometimes twenty or more pages running. The story is so captivating that if the pictures weren’t so wonderful, you would be tempted to race through the illustrated pages just to see what happens next.

Without giving too much away, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is mystery, history, suspense, friendship, and coming-of-age all at once. Life in 1931 Paris, clockworks, the history of film, and a wary but blossoming friendship are strong themes of the story. Hugo Cabret is a young street urchin living inside the walls of a Paris train station. Having learned the skill of horology (the art of measuring time) from his father, he carries on the job of the absent Timekeeper of the station, carefully maintaining and winding the clocks throughout, and living in a tiny hidden room within the walls.

In his solitude, his companion and his obsession is a broken automaton, that he inherited (in a fashion) from his father. He is determined to repair the broken automaton, and so repair himself. He steals small toy parts, gears, and springs from a toy shop in the station and thus begins an unlikely relationship with the secretive and cantankerous shopkeeper and the young girl, Isabelle, frequently found at the shop.

The text on each page is bordered by a large expanse of white space and a black border. Despite its length, this story reads quickly. Hugo is a likeable, if brooding, young man and the reader is immediately swept into the drama that is Hugo’s very existence.

The book’s website is a great resource. http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/about_hugo_intro.htm

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