What’s the Story?
Once upon a time, there was a young boy who had no family, no home, and no friends. All the boy had were the clocks of the train station in Paris and the silent automaton sitting in his little garret. Day after day, he would wind the clocks and steal his dinner. At night, he would work on the mechanical figure with parts pocketed from a wind-up toy shop. One day, he is caught by the shop owner, one day he makes friends with the shop owner’s granddaughter. One day, his precarious life is thrown upside down and changed.
Sound like a good story? It is. The story is so good, in fact, that the book was made into a movie in 2011. The cast was great. Sacha Baron Cohen played the mostly-normal station inspector. Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield star as Isabelle and Hugo and lead us on our adventure inside the station. Ben Kingsley presides as Georges Méliès, cinema legend forgotten to time. Directed by Martin Scorsese and sitting with a Rotten Tomato score of 94 percent, I think it’s safe to say that the movie Hugo was well done, well received, and worth watching. Let’s take a closer look at the story that inspired this well-loved film. After all, isn’t the book always better than the movie?
So Let’s Talk About the Book
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is a marvelous mixture of words and pictures that combine to tell a whole-hearted story. Hugo is an isolated, lonely child with no one to talk to, trust in, or love. He’s avoiding social services and trying to carve out a secret life for himself in the Paris train station after the death of his father, and as a result he holds his cards close to his chest. He doesn’t share information about himself or the secret automaton saved from his father’s workshop with anyone. He definitely doesn’t share anything with the new friend he finds in the young girl Isabelle.
Your heart reaches out for Hugo while reading, and you turn the page hoping that on this page, his troubles will end. Maybe in this chapter he’ll find a home. As you keep reading, your sympathy for Hugo extends to the rest of the characters in Selznick’s wonderful book. Chapter by chapter, he reveals the unhappy lives and troubled pasts of the rest of the cast. (Without going too deeply into the plot, I can assure you that the book has a happy ending. You won’t end up throwing this one against the wall in frustration.)
Thoughts on book
I’ve always considered a book good if an author can make me care about their characters. A book becomes very good if I find myself reading it in the middle of the night because I have to know what happens next. This book is very good. I found myself turning pages at a very late hour of the night, a task made easier by the book’s habit of telling half the story in grayscale illustrations. You turn a page and find yourself watching a series of sequential drawings unfolding the story of Hugo hiding from the station inspector, turning the key on a secret kept hidden, or finally seeing the automaton come to life. The illustrations are part flip-book, part old-fashioned movie, and all magic.
Who’s This Book For?
This is a children’s book that is completely readable by adults. The story is straight-forward enough for many kids to get, but complex enough to keep adults hooked. It has a charm to its writing that doesn’t patronize younger readers. There’s enough happening in the plot for the adults to pick up on, such as why Hugo would want to stay hidden from the adults in the station. And let’s admit, having some nifty illustrations and an innovative storytelling method help keep things fresh.
Besides the writing style and layout, there’s more that recommends this book to adults. It’s a look into the early history of cinema. Georges Méliès is a real historical figure who innovated the use of special effects and story boards. His body of work includes A Trip to the Moon, which plays a role in Hugo’s story. The book gives a view of his later life and shares a sense of a great man’s obscurity after his decline. As promised, though, the book has a happy ending. Through Hugo’s eyes, we share in the sense of magic Georges Méliès worked on film.
This goes on the shelf next to:
The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodgson Burnett
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.