Monday, May 23, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I've been reviewing books over at Steve Barancik's Best Childrens' Books, but, after I wrote this review, I realized that Steve had already posted his own review, and I *really* enjoyed this novel. Check out Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It is always a joy to discover a book that embraces attractive and conventional children’s book tropes (a friendless but talented orphan, a mysterious object paired with a mysterious notebook) while, at the same time, exhibiting and celebrating boundless inventiveness and creativity. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is such a novel. Some aspects of the story play out precisely as the seasoned reader might expect, as the young hero, Hugo Cabret, slowly unravels the secrets of an unusual automaton retrieved from the smoking ashes of a burnt museum, while other—secret identities, shifting loyalties, and the story’s true purpose—surprise the reader with no advance warning.

Visually, the book offers another surprise: much of the story is communicated not in the straightforward, descriptive text of the novel, but through lush pencil illustrations, lovingly detailed and crosshatched for depth and perspective, similar to the manner of a Chris Van Allsburg book. In some ways, these pictures convey more meaning and emotion than the writing could possible hope to accomplish, most particularly when the artist catches a particular expression in the hero’s eyes. When he is intent on study, or pleased with kindness, or shares a moment of understanding with another character, it is reflected in the eyes, and the pictures are literally worth a thousand words.

The plot of the story revolves around young Hugo, an orphan child from a family of clockmakers. After his father’s death, he becomes apprentice to his uncle, who maintains all the clocks in a large train station. However, the uncle drinks, and soon Hugo becomes responsible for the clocks all on his own, even after his uncle disappears for good. However, Hugo’s primary concern is a damaged automaton, an obsession with which led to his father’s death. Hugo is determined to repair this strange and magical toy, to which end he has been stealing small pieces from a toy shop in the train station. One day, the toymaker catches him and discovers the small notebook in which all Hugo’s father’s observations about the automaton had been written.

The toymaker steals the notebook, and Hugo, in his desperate attempt to recover his property, strikes up an uneasy friendship with the toymaker’s goddaughter. Together, they begin to wonder: who is the toymaker, and why is he so interested in Hugo’s notebook? Why won’t he let his goddaughter, Isabelle, attend the movies, and why does he take Hugo on as an assistant, while pretending to have destroyed his notebook?

At the heart of the story comes Hugo’s revelation: he is as competent as any clockmaker, and he may be able to fix the automaton without his father’s notes. If he does so, he’s certain, he’ll receive a message from his father that will help him find his way in the world, show him that he’s not completely alone.

Needless to say, Hugo does fix the automaton. He even receives its message, which both reassures him and leads to far more perplexing questions, which carry him though the second half of the novel. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a mystery and a love story: the mystery of the automaton’s meaning and the toymaker’s identity, and the love of young children for magic and adventure and uncovering the hidden truth. This wonderful book helps the reader rekindle a belief in true, everyday miracles. Magic can happen, it promises. We need only help it along.

1 comment:

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