[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.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.