No matter your opinion of the literary academy, I think it makes sense to pay attention to titles that win big book awards. Sure, the elites make me sigh as much as they make me smile, but they’re important nonetheless. Their opinions shape tastes, drive media coverage, set new fads in motion, and make Joe and Jane Ordinary sit up and take notice. Additionally, even we grassroots types have to admit that they manage to get things right from time to time. I never would’ve considered picking up Brian Selznick’s comic/novel hybrid The Invention of Hugo Cabret without The Caldecott Medal stamped on its dust jacket. When authors upend traditional forms, the results tend to be muddled and pretentious. Not so with Hugo. Selznick has managed to craft an experimental book that’s both coherent and captivating.
Hugo Cabret has not always lived alone. Once he dwelt with his father, clock mender and part-time museum curator who instilled into his boy a love for complicated mechanisms and the wonders they can wreck. But all of that got swept away like swirling smoke when Hugo’s drunken Uncle Claude burst into his room one night and dragged him off to live with him as an apprentice timekeeper in the train station. (Uncle Claude kept accurate the many large timepieces by which busy travelers marked the locomotives’ schedules.) A fire had engulfed the museum, destroying everything within — including Hugo’s dad. Well, not quite everything. In his spare time, Hugo’s father had begun repairing a life-sized, clockwork automaton, believing that it would come alive once its mechanisms were calibrated just right. Hugo discovered the machine in the museum’s rubble, and now in his spare time he tries to get it into working order. It’s not an easy task. Uncle Claude has disappeared, leaving his nephew to tune the station’s clocks himself while dodging the in-house investigator. Hugo acquires parts for his project in the only way he knows: He steals them from a toymaker’s stall. But while Hugo pockets windups one day, the angry owner’s hand clamps onto his arm …
School Library Journal praised The Invention of Hugo Cabret because it “shatters conventions.” No doubt the book earned many of its accolades due to Selznick’s unorthodox composition. He cuts standard narrative sections with gorgeously detailed charcoal drawings and occasional stills from old silent movies. It’s innovative, no doubt, but that isn’t why I appreciated it. Rather, I thought the interspersion of words with images made Hugo a great title for reluctant readers. Selznick sticks to simple diction and short sentences, rarely allowing more than half a dozen pages to pass without putting in a series of pictures. What’s more, the subject matter will likely seize the attention of kids who’d rather run outdoors or play video games than pick up a book. Kinetically powered robots and clock towers riddled with secret passageways. Break-neck pursuits and a near-disastrous encounter with a train. Libraries filled with forgotten knowledge and exotic images from silent films. In other words, it isn’t the least bit boring. Parents should note that the book never quite deals with Hugo’s thievery in a satisfying way. Selznick attempts to reconcile it by drawing on the myth of Prometheus, who was punished for stealing despite doing so from noble motives. It doesn’t quite work, but coupled with discussion of Exodus 20:15 and Proverbs 6:30-31, it could serve as an introduction to biblical ethics on the subject. Best for those ages eight and up.
(Picture: Copyright 2007 by Brian Selznick; used under Fair Use)