Magic at the Movies: Hugo

Today I finally saw Hugo in 3D. When I first heard that Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning Image of Hugo movie posterbook would become a movie, I thought: it had better be in black and white. I felt disappointed upon learning that the movie would be in color. Over the summer of 2011, I led a book discussion on The Invention of Hugo Cabret for 9-12 year-olds. When one boy suggested that they should make a movie out of the book, I leapt at the chance to share the news of the upcoming movie and to ask for the group’s opinions on the color v. black and white issue. Given another boy’s stern disapproval of the poor movie technology used by Georges Méliès (my attempts to emphasize that it was new technology at the time did not seem to impress him), I guessed that they would vote for color. To my surprise, every boy and girl enthusiastically agreed that the movie should be in black and white. Given the black and white illustrations in the book and the relevant film history, it had to be. The conversation shifted, and at the end of the discussion, beyond feeling like I had learned something from these insightful and imaginative kids, I also left believing that my own disappointment was justified.

I am thrilled to report that I now think I was wrong on the latter point. That, in fact, Martin Scorsese is a lot smarter than me (surprise!), and stayed very true to the spirit of the book and its story. I have no pretense of possessing any film expertise, but I can say this: I felt as enchanted watching Hugo on the big screen as I did reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The use of the most up-to-date technology (3D) in Hugo extended the story’s celebration of movie history and technology in a way I hadn’t believed was possible. The inclusion of old film clips from Méliès, his predecessors, and his contemporaries was exciting, and I hoped that the critical boy from my book discussion had the opportunity to see the movie, as well, and perhaps gain a new appreciation for the magic and ingenuity that went into those older films. I, for one, saw that magic and ingenuity on screen today. Hugo was wonderful, as in truly full of wonder. The kind that makes your eyes grow big and your mouth open just a bit to let in the occasional gasp or exclamation. If you haven’t had the chance to see Hugo yet, please, rush out and do so now. But, of course, read the book first.

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Image of book cover for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Plot: Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station. His belly is often empty, but his life is full of secrets: his father died in a fire at the museum where he worked, his drunken uncle who took him in is missing, and he winds the station clocks in his uncle’s place. Perhaps his biggest secret is that he is trying to complete his clockmaker father’s last project, fixing an automaton, a mechanical man who can write. When stealing necessary parts gets him into trouble, he loses his father’s notebook of crucial drawings and diagrams to a grumpy old toyseller. Will he ever be able to solve the mystery of the mechanical man, or will he be alone forever?

Setting: 1931; Paris, France.

Point of View: 3rd person limited (to Hugo) until the last chapter when it switches to 1st person in Hugo’s voice. The perspective is also unique because large portions of the story are told through illustrations.

Theme: Orphans, death, mystery, work, imagination, magic, film, drawings, mechanics, 1930s, France

Literary Quality: This book breaks boundaries set by most novels in its alternating storytelling modes of prose and illustrations. Mixing reality with invention, it intertwines some real history of filmmaking and particularly of the filmmaker, Georges Méliès, with a fictional story about young Hugo Cabret, hidden behind his clocks. Beautiful pencil drawings and photographs from old movies create a cinematic effect and add to the enchantment and mystery of the story. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal for this book.

Cultural Authenticity: Selznick includes detailed source notes and clarifies which aspects of the book are fiction and which are historic. His research shines through on the history of filmmaking, automatons, and the Paris train station. He explains that he invented a personality for Georges Méliès to fill in some blanks. His inclusion of stills from several films also adds to the authenticity of the novel.

Audience: I would recommend this book for ages 9 and up, for whom the ages of the characters, the storyline, and the illustrations hold attraction. The story has broad appeal across genders and generations. It is a great group (classroom or library or other book group setting) or individual read.

Personal reaction: I absolutely loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I found it to be wonderfully enchanting, and felt swept away by the story and illustrations into another place and time. The illustrations and photographs complement and support the text, adding a dimension of magic, creativity, and movement to the novel that uniquely captures the story’s essence. The subtle differences between varying depictions of the same scene enabled a sense of motion, which, along with the quietness of the book, was emblematic of an old motion picture. This is a book I recommend every chance I get.

A (hardly) winter walk

Robert Moses BeachMy husband, Brian, and I just returned to Madison after a luxurious three weeks spent back on the east coast with family (including our brand new nephew!) and friends. During the last leg of our trip I hung out with my fabulous in-laws on Long Island while Brian attended a conference in NYC. One day we went to Fire Island to take a walk. While cars Boardwalk to Fire Island Lighthouseare not permitted on most of the island, there is access from mainland to Robert Moses State Park, a gorgeous strip of the island complete with public beaches, boardwalk, and
Young Deer on Fire Islandthe Fire Island lighthouse. Not only was the weather unseasonably mild for January, but the sun shone and the sky was blue blue blue. Our walk turned into something of an adventure: we happened upon a young deer who munched away on some yummy plant or another next to the boardwalk, we discovered the newly opened Fire Island Light Station, which houses an original 1858 Fresnel Lens, and we finally strolled along the beach where a couple of brave souls waded into the water. Thankfully, my in-laws tolerated my picture-taking. Still adjusting to a new camera, I didn’t realize the time stamp was on until after the fact. Nevertheless, I snapped a couple shots that captured some of the day’s shining essence. If you ever have a chance to visit Fire Island, do. No matter the season.

Fire Island Lighthouse  Photo of 1858 1st Order Fresnel Lens on Fire Island

At last!

This site has been a long time coming. For the past 3.5 years, I have been a graduate student at UW-Madison in the programs of U.S. History and Library & Information Studies. In the former I studied the history of childhood, and in the latter I concentrated in youth services. While I (mostly) enjoyed the experience of graduate school, I am thrilled to have some more time on my hands and to move more fully into the professional world. That said this site will incorporate aspects of both my professional and personal interests. While I reserve the right to change my mind about its content, I expect this site will host my thoughts on the things I most love: children’s & young adult books, considerations of children’s past experiences, traveling & exploring the places I currently inhabit, baking & cooking, and any other ideas that seize me. I hope this site might serve as place where librarians, teachers, and parents might find inspiration in the books I review, and where every visitor might enjoy reading about new or familiar places, foods, and lifestyles. Thank you for reading!