Combining two inventions – the automaton and the movies – Brian Selznick creates a children’s book that adults will enjoy – The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The size and weight of the book took me by surprise – it’s huge – until I realized that Selznick had created a picture book with a story. Not quite a graphic novel – there are as many words as pictures. The story focuses on a twelve-year-old Parisian orphan boy, who secretly maintains the clocks in the railroad station after his old uncle, the station timekeeper, dies.
The automaton, a mechanical man who writes a message, rescued by Hugo’s father from the fire of an old museum is Hugo’s only company, as he tries to survive in his uncle’s old apartment above the station. He steals milk and croissants to eat, and pockets coins that travelers have dropped. He hides in the secret passageways above the station floor, watching the old man who runs the toy booth in the station, and waits for his chance to steal small mechanical toys so that he can use the parts to repair the automaton – until one day he is caught.
The old man recognizes the drawings in Hugo’s treasured notebook, and confiscates it in exchange for Hugo’s repair work at the toy booth. Eventually, the identity of the toy booth’s owner is revealed – with the help of the automaton and Hugo’s new friends, Isabelle and Etienne – but not before a scary chase and cliff-hanging moments.
Selznick’s moves the action with art that resembles Chris van Allsburg’s illustrations in The Polar Express. Instead of telling about the chase, he illustrates it through several pages of black and white sketches, and more effectively involves the reader as Hugo hides behind a wall or looks out with a frightened eye or heel of a shoe that takes up the whole page.
As with the real automaton – on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – that inspired the story, the inventor is revealed by the machine’s writing and drawing. Selznick uses his automaton to provide clues that Isabelle and Hugo follow to a happy ending that includes a famous film-maker.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a touching book, based on some historical facts, that you will want to read aloud to children as you follow the pictures together, or savor yourself on a quiet afternoon.
Read it before the Martin Scorsese movie version – “Hugo”- comes out in November.