Dreams and Inventions

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I was recently sent an advance reader’s copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a new novel for young readers from Scholastic Press. I say "novel" as this is merely the most convenient description for this rather innovative work. In fact, there are not words to accurately describe what it is. Selznick’s book combines text with illustrations, photographs, and film stills, visual elements that are part of the story itself. This makes Hugo Cabret somewhat of a cross between a prose book and a graphic novel, with an ebb and flow of its very own.

Set in Paris in 1931, the story focuses on Hugo Cabret, a young boy who lives in the walls of a train station. Orphaned by a fire and abandoned by his drunken uncle, Hugo remains in the secret passages and apartments of the station, where his uncle once worked as a timekeeper. To keep from being discovered and sent to an orphanage, the mechanically gifted boy keeps the clocks running perfectly, making it seem as though his uncle never left. The only thing that keeps the lonely child going is a damaged automaton, a mechanical man his late father had been trying to fix. When Hugo and his friend Isabelle discover the device’s history, secrets from both their pasts begin to come to light.

The most striking aspect of Hugo Cabret is of course the method of storytelling. From the very beginning, artwork is essential to the book. Before the first line of text is even glimpsed (save for a quick introduction by a mysterious professor), the reader is immersed in a series of images that coalesce out of darkness, like a film beginning in a shadowy theatre. Ironically, the official first line of the novel does not appear until page 46, yet we have already been introduced to its hero and learned much of his life and surroundings. As the story progresses, the text at times gives way to more of these full page illustrations, beautiful pencil drawings with an almost chiaroscuro sense of shading. At other times, black and white photographs or still frames from early silent films take the place of these drawings.

Unlike most children’s books, Hugo Cabret’s illustrations are integrated into the story itself. We do not pause to look at a visual interpretation of something we have just read; we see the event itself and witness its aftermath when the text resumes. For instance, if the illustrations show a girl fall from a broken chair, the text skips the description of this calamity and picks up from the girl lying on the floor. Though jarring at first, this technique works surprisingly well and helps the story truly come alive.

The story itself also deserves high marks. Hugo’s tale is both a character piece and an intricate mystery which draws inspiration from the early history of the silent film era. As a character study, the book is quite strong in its depiction of the emotional journey of the young hero and the bitter old man who becomes involved in his fate. Abandoned by everyone he loves, Hugo is a closely guarded young man who must learn to trust again and share his deepest secrets. The old man too has been seemingly cast aside by the world and experiences a startling change as a result of Hugo and Isabelle’s presence. Younger readers will be entranced by the pictures and the thrilling adventure, while parents and older readers will appreciate the historical elements, the clever techniques, and the true identity of one of the book’s characters.

Though the novel is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it’s the invention of Brian Selznick that should be praised. In this blend of text and art, Selznick has created something that’s been rarely seen in mainstream prose fiction. I’m reminded of the way plays like Oklahoma! changed musical theatre by incorporating their songs and dances into the story, rather than as amusing distractions inserted into the middle. Selznick seems poised to start a similar revolution in children's books. Whether Hugo Cabret will be a clever oddity or the start of something new remains to be seen but it does my heart proud to see writers incorporating the visual language of comics, graphic novels, and film into works of fiction. Pick this book up for your kids and maybe sneak a glance at it yourself.

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret will be released in bookstores in March of 2007.

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