Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not your everyday children's novel. Its storyline is drawn from incredible, real, almost unbelievable events; its characters are in-depth, intricate sketches of compelling real-life and imagined personas. Most extraordinary, though, is its format: a mixture of the traditionally written novel, the graphic novel, the picture book and the film storyboard, yielding a unique format that draws the reader into an almost movie-like experience. It is, in short, a work of inspired genius, melding the literary and visual worlds into one beautifully drawn and thrilling tale.
The storyline follows a young Parisian orphan, Hugo Cabret, in the early 20th century as he rescues and rebuilds an automaton, an early robot-like machine, while struggling to stay alive, protect his treasurehis only remaining link to his dead fatherand avoid being caught by the police. In the process, young Hugo uncovers the identity, endures the wrath and captures the heart of a crotchety old man who turns out to be a renowned magician and filmmakerand the very person who created the automaton Hugo is trying so desperately to rebuild. The result is a story of love and loss, discovery and magic.
Selznick is not a newcomer to the children's book world, having illustrated many acclaimed books, including The Frindle, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, Riding Freedom and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, for which he won a Caldecott Honor. He has also written one of his own, The Houdini Box, winner of the Texas Bluebonnet Award and the Rhode Island Children's Book Award. "From an early age, I always liked doing things with art," Selznick recalls. "I would sketch on my notebooks in high school, and my advisors kept telling me that I should do illustrations for children's books." But Selznick didn't want to pursue the field. "I rebelled against it for a long time," admits the New Jersey native, who purposely avoided classes on the genre while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, and at one point, steered clear of a visiting Maurice Sendak. Instead, he focused his efforts on theater, but when his dreams of graduate school in that area fell through, Selznick had a change of heart: "I realized maybe everyone had been right about me after allmaybe I should become an illustrator."
With his new ambition to create children's books, but with no practical knowledge of the genre, Selznick used the only resource available to himhis personality. "I charmed my way into working at Eeyore's Books for Children," the author says, referring to New York City's legendary children's bookstore. There, Selznick was taken under the wing of Steve Geck, the store's manager at the time (now an editor at Greenwillow Books), who taught him everything he knew about children's books. "That's really where I first saw the potential for what a book could be," Selznick says. It is also where he was introduced to his first editor, Laura Geringer, who later hired him to illustrate Doll Face Has a Party, the first of many books he would illustrate before trying his hand at writing.
For Hugo Cabret, Selznick initially set out to write a "regular" novel with perhaps one drawing per chapter, but that concept was soon dismissed. "I wanted to do something unusual with the pictures," he says, "but I didn't know what." While researching the book, the author came across the works of René Clair, an early French cinematographer who incorporated bursts of sounds as narrative elements in his silent films. Selznick became inspired to incorporate pictures in much the same way: bursts of images throughout the text that provide a narrative themselves, not just an illustration of the words. "The goal is that you won't remember what was text and what was imagery," the author says. To this end, Selznick opens the book with a 26-page sequence of illustrations that grabs our attention and "teaches" us how to read the book.
The idea for the book itself was also inspired by a French filmmaker (and magician), George Méliès, who appears as a main character in the story. "It started when I first saw A Trip to the Moon [Méliès' most famous film]," Selznick recalls. "I remember being struck by the film and how beautiful and odd it was." After seeing it, he would periodically come across an article about the filmmaker and file it away in his head. "For about 10 years, I kept learning all these little things about Méliès," Selznick says. He learned that Méliès developed and built his own equipment; that during World War I, his films were melted down by the French army to make shoe soles, and forever after, he hated the sound of tapping heels on hard floors; and that after being driven out of the film business, Méliès ran a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station. Selznick later incorporated all these elements into his book.
Then two years ago, Selznick stumbled upon a review of the book Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood, about the history of automata, and found out it contained an entire chapter about Méliès and his work on the lifelike machines. "His collection of automata had been housed in a museum in Paris, but had all been thrown away," Selznick says, "and as soon as I read it, I had a very clear image of a boy finding these automata in the garbage." Thus our young Hugo Cabret was invented.
It took Selznick two years to complete the book. "You can't rush a story," he says. "It is so important to take the time it needs." These days, the author, who splits his time between Brooklyn and San Diego, is in the midst of a multi-city tour promoting the launch of Hugo. He is also working on the audio version of the book, taking on new illustrating projects and starting to do research for his next writing project. After all, Selznick is not your ordinary authorand if Hugo is any indicationhis next book won't be ordinary either.
Director of Creative Services for MAC Cosmetics, Heidi Henneman is currently working on a picture book for all ages. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2007 Fall
Over a sequence of twenty-one double-page wordless, illustrated spreads, a story begins. The tale that follows is a lively one, involving the dogged Hugo, his ally Isabelle, an automaton that can draw pictures, and a stage magician turned filmmaker. The interplay between the illustrations and text is complete genius, and themes of secrets, dreams, and invention play lightly but resonantly throughout. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #2
Here's a dilemma for the Newbery committee...and the Caldecott: what do you do with an illustrated novel in which neither text nor pictures can tell the story alone? Not to mention the drama to be found in the page turns themselves. A brief introduction sets the time (1931) and place (Paris) and invites readers to imagine they're at the movies. And with a turn of the page, they are, as, over a sequence of twenty-one double-page wordless spreads, a story begins. A picture of the moon gives way to an aerial shot of Paris; day breaks as the "camera" moves into a shot of a train station, where a boy makes his way to a secret passage from which, through a peephole, he watches an old man sitting at a stall selling toys. Finally, the text begins: "From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything." The story that follows in breathtaking counterpoint is a lively one, involving the dogged Hugo, his tough little ally Isabelle, an automaton that can draw pictures, and a stage magician turned filmmaker, the real-life Georges MÅ½liÂs, most famously the director of A Trip to the Moon (1902). There is a bounty of mystery and incident here, along with several excellent chase scenes expertly rendered in the atmospheric, dramatically crosshatched black-and-white (naturally) pencil drawings that make up at least a third of the book. (According to the final chapter, and putting a metafictional spin on things, there are 158 pictures and 26,159 words in the book.) The interplay between the illustrations (including several stills from MÅ½liÂs's frequently surreal films and others from the era) and text is complete genius, especially in the way Selznick moves from one to the other, depending on whether words or images are the better choice for the moment. And as in silent films, it's always just one or the other, wordless double-spread pictures or unillustrated text, both framed in the enticing black of the silent screen. While the bookmaking is spectacular, and the binding secure but generous enough to allow the pictures to flow easily across the gutter, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is foremost good storytelling, with a sincerity and verbal ease reminiscent of Andrew Clements (a frequent Selznick collaborator) and themes of secrets, dreams, and invention that play lightly but resonantly throughout. At one point, Hugo watches in awe as Isabelle blithely picks the lock on a door. "How did you learn to do that?" he asks. "Books," she answers. Exactly so. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 January #2
From Selznick's ever-generative mind comes a uniquely inventive story told in text, sequential art and period photographs and film. Orphaned Hugo survives secretly in a Parisian train station (circa 1930). Obsessed with reconstructing a broken automaton, Hugo is convinced that it will write a message from his father that will save his life. Caught stealing small mechanical repair parts from the station's toy shop, Hugo's life intersects with the elderly shop owner and his goddaughter, Isabelle. The children are drawn together in solving the linked mysteries of the automaton and the identity of the artist, illusionist and pioneer filmmaker, Georges MéliÃ¨s, long believed dead. Discovering that Isabelle's godfather is MéliÃ¨s, the two resurrect his films, his reputation and assure Hugo's future. Opening with cinematic immediacy, a series of drawings immerses readers in Hugo's mysterious world. Exquisitely chosen art sequences are sometimes stopped moments, sometimes moments of intense action and emotion. The book, an homage to early filmmakers as dreammakers, is elegantly designed to resemble the flickering experience of silent film melodramas. Fade to black and cue the applause! (notes, film credits) (Fiction. 9-12) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal BookSmack
The fantasy and surprise of The Night Circus is nicely echoed in the delightful mixture of forms that Brian Selznick blends in his story of Hugo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives within the walls of a Paris train station. While Selznick's novel is ostensibly for younger readers, it should please adult fans of Morgenstern with its invitation to wonder and its focus on characters that hold answers for each other. Both novels center on the creation of something grand and important. In Hugo's case, it is the quest to repair an automaton that he believes will write him a message from his father. As his story unfolds, he discovers far more than the message-he discovers something lost for too long. The two novels share a lush sensibility, which Morgenstern achieves through extravagant detail, while Selznick, an illustrator and writer, creates by blending visual detail and textual description. The same captivated feeling one gets figuring out just what Marco has done with his scrapbook of hair and signatures is present on every page of Selznick's masterwork. Hugo just might have grown up to be Friedrick Thiessen, the wonderful clockmaker of Morgenstern's novel. - Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads," Booksmack! 10/6/11 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 January #1
Here is a true masterpieceÃ¢â¬"an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching.
Twelve-year-old orphan Hugo lives in the walls of a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century, where he tends to the clocks and filches what he needs to survive. Hugo's recently deceased father, a clockmaker, worked in a museum where he discovered an automaton: a human-like figure seated at a desk, pen in hand, as if ready to deliver a message. After his father showed Hugo the robot, the boy became just as obsessed with getting the automaton to function as his father had been, and the man gave his son one of the notebooks he used to record the automaton's inner workings. The plot grows as intricate as the robot's gears and mechanisms: Hugo's father dies in a fire at the museum; Hugo winds up living in the train station, which brings him together with a mysterious toymaker who runs a booth there, and the boy reclaims the automaton, to which the toymaker also has a connection.
To Selznick's credit, the coincidences all feel carefully orchestrated; epiphany after epiphany occurs before the book comes to its sumptuous, glorious end. Selznick hints at the toymaker's hidden identity (inspired by an actual historical figure in the film industry, Georges Mlis) through impressive use of meticulous charcoal drawings that grow or shrink against black backdrops, in pages-long sequences. They display the same item in increasingly tight focus or pan across scenes the way a camera might. The plot ultimately has much to do with the history of the movies, and Selznick's genius lies in his expert use of such a visual style to spotlight the role of this highly visual media. A standout achievement. Ages 9-12. (Mar.)[Page 50]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-9-- With characteristic intelligence, exquisite images, and a breathtaking design, Selznick shatters conventions related to the art of bookmaking in this magical mystery set in 1930s Paris. He employs wordless sequential pictures and distinct pages of text to let the cinematic story unfold, and the artwork, rendered in pencil and bordered in black, contains elements of a flip book, a graphic novel, and film. It opens with a small square depicting a full moon centered on a black spread. As readers flip the pages, the image grows and the moon recedes. A boy on the run slips through a grate to take refuge inside the walls of a train station--home for this orphaned, apprentice clock keeper. As Hugo seeks to accomplish his mission, his life intersects with a cantankerous toyshop owner and a feisty girl who won't be ignored. Each character possesses secrets and something of great value to the other. With deft foreshadowing, sensitively wrought characters, and heart-pounding suspense, the author engineers the elements of his complex plot: speeding trains, clocks, footsteps, dreams, and movies--especially those by Georges Mlis, the French pioneer of science-fiction cinema. Movie stills are cleverly interspersed. Selznick's art ranges from evocative, shadowy spreads of Parisian streets to penetrating character close-ups. Leaving much to ponder about loss, time, family, and the creative impulse, the book closes with a waning moon, a diminishing square, and informative credits. This is a masterful narrative that readers can literally manipulate.--Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library[Page 218]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.