Sunday, March 30, 2008


Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is this year's winner of the Caldecott award for best picture book, yet it was almost nominated for the Newberry award. It's a story told intermittently in pictures and words--you read a few pages, then look through a few pages of illustrations. As you can see, the book is really thick, but most of that thickness is due to the illustrations, so it's also a very fast read.

The story is about a young boy who lives in a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century. Hugo keeps the station's clocks running, but what he really wants to use his mechanical skills for is fixing a strange automaton left behind in the fire that killed his father. The automation is a little man sitting at a desk with a pen in hand, and Hugo is convinced that once all the gears are working properly, the mechanical man will write an important message.

The story combines elements of mechanics, magic tricks, and early film history, and the illustrations evoke a sense of wonder and intrigue. While I liked the book overall, I don't think the story would be as special without the illustrations. In fact, other than a few intriguing elements (like the automation), the text portions of the story were a little slow and repetitive--I felt the story had a bit of a shallow feel to it. I think the book would be better if about 3/4 of the text were removed and the illustrations held more of the brunt of the storytelling.

That said, if you spot this in a bookstore, I recommend at least checking out the illustrations: the start and finish of the book are particularly enchanting--more so if you understand the story. Whether you will like the narrative is probably a matter of how interested you are in the elements mentioned above and how prone you are to reading children's literature.


Cheryl said...

It's also interesting to note that a publisher was willing to take on a book with such an unusual format--not quite a chapter book and not quite a picture book. I credit this to the burgeoning popularity of thick/long children's books like Harry Potter and Septimus Heap, and to the growing interest in manga (though this book doesn't feel at all as edgy as manga).

Aaron Mead said...

Hmmm. I think I liked this book more than you. I think it is fantastic for several reasons.

First, I think the story is gripping. Selznick tactfully maintains reader curiosity throughout the book, first by giving us questions about Hugo (Why is he alone? Why does he live in a train station? How does he survive? Why is he stealing toys? Why is he so passionate about the automaton? Will he successfully repair it?), and then once we are invested in Hugo as a character, by giving us questions about the other characters in the story (Isabelle, Papa Georges), and how the story will come out.

Another great thing about the book is that it raises and addresses deep themes that are central to coming of age. For example, the book addresses head-on the theme of loss. All of the characters in the book are coping with loss. The story shows, in an age-appropriate way, both the genuine anguish that comes with loss, and also a way through loss in restorative relationships with others. The book also tackles the theme of life-purpose, a theme that will engage young readers beginning to wonder about their place in the world.

Of course the book is extraordinarily creative, the illustrations are amazing, and I could go on about other aspects of it, but, all that to say, I would endorse it for 9-to-12-year-olds wholeheartedly.