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.