The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is a children’s novel weighing in at an intimidating 533 pages, but the reader brave enough to dive headlong into its pages will find a multi-layered text that consists of not only a delightfully written tale, but rich illustrations that take over the telling of the story at regular intervals. Selznick’s creation navigates the grey area between picture book and graphic novel in what certainly constitutes a visual and narrative achievement and a truly original work.
The story opens with a short introduction by one Professor H. Alcofrisbas, who writes:
The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever.
Following this inviting foreword is a black double-page spread with a small picture of the moon in the center of two pages. Throughout the following pages the frame grows to fill up the entire double-page spread (save a small border of black around the edges, reminiscent of a frame in a film) revealing the sky, the Paris skyline, a train station, and finally, our protagonist, Hugo Cabret.
Hugo is a 12-year-old boy strapped with responsibility beyond that which a child should have to shoulder. When his uncle, a hopeless drunk in charge of tending the station’s clocks, disappears, Hugo takes it upon himself to maintain the clocks in hopes that his uncle won’t be missed, so that he can keep his dwelling and enjoy the freedom of coming and going, living within the walls, quietly repairing an artifact cherished by both Hugo and his late father.
This artifact, we learn, is the heart of Hugo’s tale. A forgotten automaton discovered among the dust and rot of a museum storage room, it is a mechanical man, pen in hand, poised to deliver a message. Hugo is certain that if he can repair the automaton using his late father’s notes, the mechanical man will write a message from beyond the grave. To assist in his repairs, Hugo resorts to stealing toys from the train station toy shop, and soon finds himself working off a debt to the shopkeeper, a man with secrets of his own. What follows brings together a stolen notebook, an oddly familiar drawing, unlikely friends, the magic of silent film, and a giant in cinema, Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).
Selznick has a number of balls in the air with this project: juggling the textual narrative, sustaining a 500 page mystery, while integrating the illustrated narrative, and a number of allusions and inspirations from classic film and 1930s Paris. While the novel largely defies categorization, it closely resembles a silent film, and fittingly so. In addition to the novel’s rich illustrations, Selznick employs photos and movie stills to enhance his storytelling, and build a cinematic mood. In the tradition of graphic narrative (or sequential art, whatever your term of choice), the illustrations play as integral a role in the overall story as the text. The use of illustrations is hardly gratuitous, for the pictures quite literally take over and carry out the narrative when the text disappears. And, really, who would care if the illustrations were gratuitous? They’re gorgeous.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is full of magic ... for the child reader, for the adult reader, the film lover, the art lover, for anyone willing to give it a go. If you’re scared of the size or the concept, don’t be. Open your mind, pour Selznick’s creation in, and be reminded of the dream of childhood.