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Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Scholastic     534 pp.
3/07     ISBN 978-0-439-81378-5     $22.99

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 Méliès, 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 Méliès’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.

From the March/April 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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