The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of an orphaned French boy who lives in a Paris railway station. He moved there to live with his uncle after his father died. His uncle was the stations clock keeper, in charge of winding all the stations clocks and of keeping them all in good repair. Hugo’s uncle drinks and ends up disappearing on night, so Hugo maintains the clocks himself in the hopes that no one will notice his uncle is gone and send him to an orphanage.
He desperately wants to stay in the train station because he is trying to repair a automaton that he believes his father made. The automaton is a small mechanical man sitting at a writing desk poised pen in hand ready to write. Hugo believes that the automaton will write a message from his father. He steals parts for the automaton from an old man who sells wing-up toys in a booth at the station. The old man catches him which propels the books plot forward in very surprising and exciting ways.
What makes The Invention of Hugo Cabret so unusual is that the book is told through both words and pictures. The balance between the two is about half and half. For example when Hugo is pursued through the station by the station agent we are given a series of drawings that show us the chase, turning the book into a kind of static movie. The act of turning the page helps build the suspense; each drawing shows the next twist or turn of Hugo’s escape attempt, and we rush from picture to picture along with him. The illustrations also include photographs from the time period showing the railroad station and various silent movies that also figure in the plot of the book.
I found The Invention of Hugo Cabret impossible to put down. I read the entire thing in one sitting. Dakota’s dinner was 45 minutes late as a result. The drawings are wonderful in their own right; the story is well written. The plots twists are a delight and come in both written and illustrated form; you do have to pay attention to the pictures. So, I’m giving The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick five out of five stars.
I found the automaton described in the book to be a bit far-fetched. It’s a mechanical man that can draw a very detailed picture once it’s wound up. So I checked out the actual automaton that it is based on. The Franklin Institute for Science has one that was donated to them. They did not know who made it, but they repaired it and wound it up. It drew several pictures and wrote out several poems then signed the name of it’s maker just as the automaton in Hugo Cabret does. It’s an amazing machine, built around 1810. Here is a video of it. Truth is stranger, and more wonderful, than fiction, I guess.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. Since then I have read, and enjoyed, the book a second time and seen the movie. The movie is okay. It’s odd but a book that’s full of visuals which are essentially movie tricks suffered when translated into a movie full of visual tricks. Hugo was good, but it would have been great if it had been kept simpler, less computer graphics and more humanity. But I generally think that’s true for all movies in general these days. We’re currently designing a unit around Hugo Cabret for our 7th grader at my school. We’ll do it for the first time next fall. Should be fun.