Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review - The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I was going to start this review with a recollection of how I ended up in a hot tub with Brian Selznick, but I think I’ve dropped that particular name enough for one lifetime, so I’ll just leave it at this: librarianship can make for some pretty weird anecdotes.

Anyway, at first glance, this book seems hefty for a children’s story. Opening the cover reveals an ethereal mix of hand-drawn sketches and sparse, elegant prose that unfolds like a mix of picture book, fable, and silent film. I can’t think of anything else like it.

The story is deceptively short enough that I don’t want to give too much away. Hugo Cabret is an orphan that lives in the walls of a Paris train station, taking care of the clocks and stealing food to survive. Every now and then, he visits the toymaker’s booth in the station and makes off with small windup animals, which he cannibalizes for parts to repair a miniature figurine he keeps in his room. The mysterious automaton is the only memento Hugo has left of his father, and he is convinced that if he gets it working it will impart an important message. When the toymaker catches him one day, it sets off a chain of events that connects Hugo’s mechanical man with the dreamlike movies his father used to talk about, and forever alters the lives of both Hugo and the toymaker.

The most striking elements of the book are the two-page illustrations that frequently intersperse the narrative. They can be disorienting at first, until the reader realizes that they are integral to moving the story along. They are scenes in themselves, rather than mere accompaniment. The pictures are wonderfully drawn, and framed in such a way that something almost like animation emerges if you flip through them in just the right way. Selznick’s prose is simple and straightforward; all of the charm and wonder resides in these visual interludes.

The only complaint that I have with the book is that things get a little anticlimactic near the end. Selznick builds so much fantastic wonder, especially in the beginning, that the resolution feels exceptionally earthbound. This in itself is a bit of a brilliant stroke, though, as the story was inspired by a real turn-of-the-century filmmaker and his odd collection of automata. Taken as a whole, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a paean to how extraordinary the little quirks and foibles of ordinary life can be, especially when you are twelve years old. Despite its impressive page count, this can be read in a day, and is filled with enough enchantment to hook readers of any age. I plan on putting it in my son’s hands as soon as he’s able to read on his own.

Verdict: 4 / 5

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