One-Minute Book Reviews

June 18, 2010

‘Red Ted and the Lost Things’ — A Former British Children’s Laureate Returns With a Tale of Finding Your Way Home

A teddy bear, a crocodile and a cat team up in a picture book from a popular author

Red Ted and the Lost Things. By Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Few picture-books authors write more honestly about loss than Michael Rosen, the former British children’s laureate. His Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was the rare book for its age group that dealt successfully with multi-layered adult grief — the pain its author felt when his 18-year-old son Eddie died from meningitis.

Now Rosen has returned with a lighter story about loss: a tale of a brave red teddy bear who must find his own way home when his young owner accidentally leaves him on a train seat and he ends up in a cavernous lost-and-found department. That premise alone would set this picture book apart from many others in which lost toys are reunited with their owners through children’s diligent search-and-rescue efforts.

But Red Ted and the Lost Things is also unusual for its willingness to acknowledge that some lost objects never return home. Red Ted at first feels confident that his owner, a girl named Stevie, will claim him at the train station. But he realizes he must find his own way home when a crocodile tells him, “I’ve been here a very long time, and no one has ever come to get me.”

So the new friends follow the “Way Out” signs in the train station and begin their journey – an optimistic teddy bear and a pessimistic crocodile, who fall in with a helpful cat who has some of the traits of each. It’s a much quieter trip than the rip-roaring family adventure in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, a book that includes an unexpected snowstorm. And its pleasures are gentler: Joel Stewart affirms the bond between the animals, despite their differences, by using bright colors only for the three traveling companions and a sepia- wash for the background. And by the time the three find Stevie, this book has become more than a quest narrative: It is a story about the value of teamwork and how people of different of temperaments can work – and, in the end, live – together happily.

Best line/picture: Red Ted and the Lost Things has an inventive spread that consists of one-and-a-half blank pages (with art only at the bottom of the second page), which appears when the characters seem to have run out of ideas for finding their way home.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder why Steve calls her mother “Mom” instead of “Mum” when the signs follow the British model (“Way Out” instead of “Exit”).

Published: October 2009

About the author and illustrator: Rosen was the British Children’s Laureate from 2007–2009. He is best known in the U.S. for his acclaimed We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which he performs in an excellent video. He collaborated on Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with the great illustrator British Quentin Blake. Joel Stewart lives in England and has illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She reviews children’s books on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

[This is a repost of an April 21 review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the American Library Association’s 2008 Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children on January 14, 2008. No changes have been made in the review, which I stand by.]

An innovative novel for third- through sixth-graders gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

Take a 12-year-old orphaned boy whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have?

No, not the latest Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in 1931 in a Paris train station, where he tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message.

You’ve also got a novel with spectacular packaging, which may explain why it’s clambering up the best-seller lists and Martin Scorsese is rumored to want to the film rights. The Invention of Hugo Cabret merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in way that no other book for its age group has done. It has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why the gap?

Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words – often just a paragraph or two per page – and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations consist mostly of pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book. And because you can flip through the pictures at any pace, you can read the book quickly despite its bulk. On that level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is God’s gift to reluctant readers – a novel that will give children the satisfaction of finishing a fat book but has about the same number of words as The Higher Power of Lucky.

The problem is that Selznick doesn’t write nearly as well as he draws. His prose stays oddly earthbound for a story about the power of art to take us metaphorically to the moon. Hugo and his friend Isabelle resemble generic American children, not unique French ones. Selznick did months of research on subjects like the clocks that Hugo tends the train station, where Isabelle helps out at a toy booth. But you wonder if he did any all on French children. His characters never kiss on both cheeks, as even 12-year-olds do in France. Hugo’s companions instead greet each other with Americanisms like: “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things at the toy booth?” And they are hard to distinguish from many others in middle-grade readers.

Worse, the novel is a psychological muddle. Selnick brings up big ideas without giving them literary or emotional resolution they demand. Hugo blames himself when his father dies in a fire that erupts while he’s trying to fix the automaton that may contain a secret message: “This was all his fault! He had wanted his father to fix the machine and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Selznick, incredibly, never returns to his hero’s misplaced guilt or absolves him of it. At the end of the book, for all we know, Hugo still thinks he’s responsible and children may believe he is. Hugo also offers glib rationalizations for his habitual thievery. And while he suffers for his stealing, he appears to feel no genuine remorse for it and eventually is rewarded for his law-breaking. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, crime pays well.

Some children may be so enthralled by the beautiful production values of this novel that they don’t see its flaws. But Elizabeth Ward was right when she wrote in the Washington Post that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more about “the razzle-dazzle of novelty” than artistic merit: “The first movies transfixed people too, but that doesn’t mean their plots weren’t mostly pretty hokey and their characters stiffer than a girder.”

Best line: Selznick is related to the late producer David Selznick and has a contagious love of movies. He suggests the joy even in watching films at home in lines like: “Hugo closed the curtains. They aimed the projector toward one of the walls and turned it on. It clattered to life, and then the film began moving through it as though light had burst onto a wall.”

Worst line: “ … and now, because of him, his father was dead.” And a lot of children may still believe it at the end of the novel.

Published: January 2007

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appears in the April 21 post directly below this one and is archived with the April 2007 posts and under “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.”

Furthermore: Selznick illustrated the Caldecott Honor book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

 

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures
By Brian Selznick

Take a 12-year-old orphan whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have? No, not a new Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message. In this innovative book, Brian Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why? Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations are mostly pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book.

Question 1
This book is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What is Hugo’s “invention”? Could the word refer to more than one thing? Could Hugo have “invented” a new life for himself (or for someone else) in addition to a mechanical man?

Question 2
Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story in a unique way. He uses a lot more pictures than you find in most novels. Sometimes he tells Hugo’s story in words and sometimes in pictures. Why do you think he did this? How did you like it? What are some advantages and disadvantages of having so many pictures in a novel?

Question 3
Selznick also uses only black-and-white pictures on the pages of in this novel, no color ones. What are some reasons why he might have done this? Some authors say that they like to use black-and-white art because it lets people use their imagination and fill in the colors in their minds. Did you “fill in” any colors while you were reading the book? What are some of the colors you saw in your mind? Why?

Question 4
A lot of other authors have at times used only black-and-white pictures. For example, Chris Van Allsburg has done this in some books. And all of the pictures that Matt Phelan did for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Award, are black-and-white. What books have you read that have only black-and-white illustrations? How do they compare to The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 5
You may have noticed that a lot of the drawings in this book look as though they have something draped over them. It’s as though you’re looking at the pictures through a veil or net. Can you think of any reasons why Selznick might have used this technique? Does it make the story seem a little more mysterious? Does it remind you of the lenses you can put on a camera, including a movie camera?

Question 6
Hugo loves a movie called The Million that he and Isabelle go to a theater to see. It has an “amazing” chase in it. “He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” [Page 202] Why do you Selznick wrote that? What happens right after it in The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 7
Hugo spends a lot of time trying to fix things like clocks or the mechanical man, or automaton, that he finds on the street. He likes machines because each one has a purpose. “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo says. He adds, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” [Page 374] How does this relate to the rest of the novel?

Question 8
The story of Prometheus is important in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a picture of Prometheus on pages 344–345. We learn that he was “finally set free” from his chains. What character or characters in this book does he resemble?

Question 9
Hugo’s friend Isabelle loves looking at photographs. She says, “You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.” [Page 193] Pick a photograph in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and make up a story to go with it. You might start with the picture of the man hanging from the clock on pages 173–174 or with the picture of the rocket crashing into the moon on pages 352–353.

Question 10
Hugo thinks it’s his fault that his father had died in a fire. [Page 124] Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?

Extras:
Question 11
If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, you may have noticed that the Invention of Hugo Cabret has some things in common with them. What are some of them?

Question 12
Often a novel is written by one person and illustrated by another. That’s because not many people are equally good at writing and drawing. Most of us are better at one or the other. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is unusual in that Selznick both wrote and illustrated it. Do you think he was better at writing or drawing? Which did you like better in his novel, the words or the pictures? Why?

Vital statistics:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12. Published: January 2007.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to the “Ready Reference” links at your library. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by, and appears on, Open Directory lists. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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