I’ve been plotting and planning to participate in the I Read It! carnival at 5 Minutes for Books ever since I first learned of its existence. I had a few ideas in the back of my mind: should I read The Scarlet Pimpernel? should I try one of the many Christian fiction novels highlighted in the past few months? Although I really want to read The Scarlet Pimpernel, I decided against that one because I’m still embroiled in Les Miserables and I didn’t want to confuse myself (which isn’t hard to do) with a similar setting.
I ended up deciding on The Invention of Hugo Cabret because after reading several reviews (like this one and this one) I knew it deserved to be short-listed, and since it’s a children’s book, I assumed that it must be short enough to read in an hour or so. After picking up the novel at the library, however, I realized that it is not short–it actually contains about 530 pages! Once I opened the book, however, I realized that several hundred of the pages are illustrations, so its length as it relates to required reading time is misleading. However, the pictures in this story are not something that the reader can casually dismiss! Really, the concept for this book is amazing! It is no wonder that it won the 2008 Caldecott Medal!
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of the title character, a twelve year old boy who lives in Paris in the 1930s. He lives in a train station and survives on the food he can beg or steal from cafes and vendors. He manages to keep his lodging at the station by secretly continuing the job of his missing-and-presumed-dead uncle, the station clockmaker (clock tender? clock winder?). Hugo’s real passion in life, however, is working on the automaton his late father rescued from a museum fire. Hugo’s father’s notes about the inner workings of the automaton provide him with the blueprint for fixing it. However, when Hugo is caught stealing a mechanical mouse at a toy shop, his secret life begins to unravel. The unraveling of his secret, though, is actually the beginning of something altogether more exciting than Hugo could ever have dreamed.
I was really taken in by the concept of this book. Brian Selznick combines the idea of a chapter book with what I guess is a graphic-novel approach to a story (‘though I’ve never actually read one of those). Unlike most traditional picture books, the pictures in this story stand alone in their advancement of the plot; if the pictures were not there, the story would be completely incomprehensible and disjointed. In addition to this, the pictures themselves convey emotion and detail that is just as stimulating as any prose. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it turned out to be a fairly short read, after all.
Although much of this book is action and dialogue, there are times when Hugo reminisces about his father or thinks about the way he sees the world. There are a few passages in this picture book that actually made me take a quick breath because of their beauty or unexpected revelation of something true about our world. This is an example:
Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I’m not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too. (378)
Without delving too deeply into the construct of world-as-machine, isn’t this a beautiful thought?