Brian Selznick - Part novel, part graphic novel, part silent film: with references to George Méliès, magic, magicians, and mechanical objects

Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scholastic Press, 2007.

“ORPHAN, CLOCK KEEPER, AND THIEF, twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric girl and the owner of a small toy booth in the train station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message all come together... in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
This 526-page book is told in both words and pictures. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things. Each picture (there are nearly three hundred pages of pictures!) takes up an entire double page spread, and the story moves forward because you turn the pages to see the next moment unfold in front of you.”

“It is wonderful.
Take that overused word literally: Hugo Cabret evokes wonder. At more than 500 pages, its proportions seem Potteresque, yet it makes for quick reading because Selznick s amazing drawings take up most of the book. While they may lack the virtuosity of Chris Van Allsburg’s work or David Wiesner’s, their slight roughness gives them urgency. The result is a captivating work of fiction that young readers with a taste for complex plots and a touch of magic think Harry H., not Harry P. can love.” - John Schwartz

“Selznick's unique, visually arresting illustrated novel is transformed into an equally unique audiobook-plus-DVD presentation here. The story of 12-year-old Hugo Cabret orphan, clockmaker's apprentice, petty thief and aspiring magician and how a curious machine connects him with his departed father and pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès is full-bodied material for Woodman. The narrator dives in, reading with both a bright energy and an air of mystery befitting the adventurous plot. Listeners will likely cotton to Woodman's affable tone and be fascinated by all the unusual elements here, including the sound-effects sequences (footsteps, train station noises) that stand in for Selznick's black-and-white illustrations, which appear like mini silent movies in the book. Selznick himself takes over as host on the making-of style DVD, in which he divulges his love of film and his inspiration for the book, discusses (and demonstrates) his drawing technique and even performs a magic trick. The "chapters" of his interview are interspersed with excerpts from the audiobook, as he explains how the recording was a translation of both his words and pictures to sound. This inventive audio-visual hybrid will be a welcome addition to both home and classroom libraries.” - Publishers Weekly

“Hugo Cabret is upset when his unusual notebook is confiscated by the owner of the wind-up toy stand at the Paris train station. When the old man says he intends to burn the notebook, Hugo is beside himself. It is, after all, the only connection he has left with his father. It is the key to a critically important mystery. Within its pages lies the reason why Hugo Cabret, recently abandoned by his uncle, continues to hide in the Paris train station, tending the clocks and hoping nobody notices him. He must get it back! So we have the beginning of the end for Hugo's life to this point and the beginning of something more. Brian Selznick's book is a lush hybrid of a creation, a blend of novel and graphic novel that invites you to linger over each page, but also inspires a hunger to know more that keeps you turning the pages. This unforgettable work is homage to early cinema, to human curiosity, and to magic, that manages to evoke, in even the most the modern, high-tech, wired reader a sense of wonder at the splendid creations of the world in 1931.” - Children's Literature

“Orphaned twelve-year-old Hugo Cabret lives in a train station in Paris in 1931, managing to survive by stealing food and keeping his uncle's disappearance a secret. Hugo runs the clocks in the city for his uncle and pilfers small toy parts in the hopes of fixing an automaton that he received from his father. Eventually his plan of surviving on his own fails, and he befriends a young girl and her grandfather, who owns a toyshop in the train station. The grandfather recognizes Hugo's talent for repairing machinery and employs him at the toy store. The girl's grandfather turns out to be the famous filmmaker Georges Melies, who adopts Hugo and fosters his love for magic. Selznick's artwork in this "novel in words and pictures" is stunning. Beautiful, full-page black-and-white illustrations are interspersed throughout the book and advance the story, often in critical areas of the plot. Readers will also love the still film images that are used when the characters discuss Melies's films. The novel is loosely based on the actual French filmmaker, and the credits section at the end gives more information about Melies, films from the early movie era, and automatons. Part mystery, part feel-good drama, and part picture book for older readers, this novel will fly off the shelf simply because of its visual appeal.” – VOYA

“Brian Selznick's atmospheric story is set in Paris in 1931. Hugo Cabret is an orphan; his father, a clockmaker, has recently died in a fire and the boy lives with his alcoholic Uncle Claude, working as his apprentice clock keeper in a bustling train station. When Hugo's uncle fails to return after a three-day absence, the boy decides it's his chance to escape the man's harsh treatment. But Hugo has nowhere to go and, after wandering the city, returns to his uncle's rooms determined to fix a mechanical figure-an automaton-that his father was restoring when he died. Hugo is convinced it will "save his life"-the figure holds a pen, and the boy believes that if he can get it working again, it will deliver a message from his father. This is just the bare outline of this multilayered story, inspired by and with references to early (French) cinema and filmmaker George Méliès, magic and magicians, and mechanical objects. Jeff Woodman's reading of the descriptive passages effectively sets the story's suspenseful tone. The book's many pages of pictorial narrative translate in the audio version into sound sequences that successfully employ the techniques of old radio plays (train whistles, footsteps reverberating through station passages, etc.). The accompanying DVD, hosted by Selznick and packed with information and images from the book, will enrich the listening experience." - Daryl Grabarek

“From Selznick's ever-generative mind comes a uniquely inventive story told in text, sequential art and period photographs and film. Orphaned Hugo survives secretly in a Parisian train station (circa 1930). Obsessed with reconstructing a broken automaton, Hugo is convinced that it will write a message from his father that will save his life. Caught stealing small mechanical repair parts from the station's toy shop, Hugo's life intersects with the elderly shop owner and his goddaughter, Isabelle. The children are drawn together in solving the linked mysteries of the automaton and the identity of the artist, illusionist and pioneer filmmaker, Georges Melies, long believed dead. Discovering that Isabelle's godfather is Melies, the two resurrect his films, his reputation and assure Hugo's future. Opening with cinematic immediacy, a series of drawings immerses readers in Hugo's mysterious world. Exquisitely chosen art sequences are sometimes stopped moments, sometimes moments of intense action and emotion. The book, an homage to early filmmakers as dreammakers, is elegantly designed to resemble the flickering experience of silent film melodramas. Fade to black and cue the applause! (notes, film credits)” - Kirkus Reviews

“One word: Masterpiece! The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an incredible book, the like of which I have never read before. It’s a decadent visual treat as well as a gripping and wonderful story. It falls into its own category of part graphic novel, part novel, part cinema, part picture book, with the occasional still of silent movies thrown into the mix.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of a young boy who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris. His father, a clockmaker, died in a museum fire under mysterious circumstances and Hugo went to live with his drunken uncle, who had a job setting all the giant clocks in the station. Clocks figure prominently in the story.
Months ago, Hugo's uncle went out drinking and never came back. Frightened that he will be discovered and taken to an orphanage, Hugo has continued his uncle's job, allowing the paychecks to pile up and living by stealing food from the various vendors in the train station.
He also steals mechanical parts from a toymaker. Hugo found an automaton in the ashes of the museum fire that killed his father and is determined to bring it to life, thinking that somehow, someway, it will bring his father back, since his father was obsessed with it before he died.
Hugo gets caught stealing a toy mouse and becomes involved with the mysterious toymaker and his ward Isabel. The plot gets more and more intricate as it goes along and the mystery deepens until its marvelous ending. The great storytelling in this book doesn’t just rely on the pictures or artwork, rather each — both text and art — blend together to tell you an amazing tale. Each complements the other.
Every page takes you deeper into the mystery, tells more about the history of silent film, including that of one of its pioneers, Georges Melies and his 1902 masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon. Selznick gives quite a bit of history of both automata and Georges Melies and gets the reader wanting more. Luckily, he includes lists of places to find out more as an appendix to the book.
he book is huge and may be a little daunting for children or adults when they first see the size of it - but push, shove, do whatever you have to do to get them to open that first page because then, you’re hooked.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret reminds me of a comic or a flipbook in that it has quite long sections of black and white sequential art telling the story without text. The illustrations in that art are gorgeous. They’re all done in these amazing pencil drawings that look like charcoal sketches and the detail is sublime.
The faces, especially the eyes, are mesmerizing in their depth, beauty and seem stunningly lifelike yet with the haunting quality of a dream. The silent movie stills along with archival photographs of the era contribute to the dreamlike, silent film feel of the book. I loved how pages mimicked the pan of a camera and how drawings are set on black background to get that feel of old photographs or stills. It’s pure, wonderful genius!” - Gina Ruiz

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.” - Andi Miller

“This is a story that teeters on the verge of being great, but in the end I have to call it merely good.
There is a lovely core to this book, about the magic of dreams and how one man’s dreams, preserved on film, help a boy discover his own. The book was inspired by – and is in large part a tribute to – George Méliès, a director perhaps known only to film history buffs. Méliès was a magician turned filmmaker who famously created the first science fiction/fantasy film, A Trip to the Moon, back in 1902 .
In 1913 Georges Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy and of the 500 films he made, most were lost or destroyed. Méliès faded into obscurity. I would bet good money that paying homage to Méliès is a large part of why Martin Scorsese is directing the feature adaptation of this book. (Scorsese is dedicated to the preservation of film history, and he founded a non profit - The Film Foundation – to do just that.) I absolutely love that through this story kids will learn Méliès’ name.
In Hugo Cabret, Méliès’ famous film plays a central role in the mystery surrounding an automaton that one orphan boy, Hugo Cabret, is determined to fix. Hugo is obsessed by the machine, convinced that if he can just make it work again it will somehow magically rescue him. His quest to fix the automaton brings him to the owner of a toy booth, who has secrets of his own, and his nosy granddaughter. Together they threaten to make Hugo’s carefully hidden world fall apart.
There are plenty of chase scenes in this book, where Hugo is almost caught by the authorities, and while they become a little repatative, they add a nice drive to the narrative. The gears of clockwork, the automaton, and the mystery surrounding the toy seller are all fascinating – my problem with this story is that while there is a wonderful build up, there is no finale. The story fizzles and sputters to an end because the emotional arc flatlines – the toy seller is on the verge of a breakdown because of some dark secret he is desperate to keep hidden, but as soon as Hugo and the man’s granddaughter uncover it, he’s just fine. Too fine. The toy seller goes from crazed and feverish to suddenly coherent and content in the blink of an eye, with no real explanation or understanding of his transformation. I can extrapolate some, and guess at more, but mostly I just feel cheated. I badly wanted him to have his moment, to see his revelation, to understand what went through his mind.
Hugo’s ending is similarly anticlimactic – the orphan finds a place to belong much too easily. A large part of what’s missing from the end of this book is Hugo’s role in the toy seller’s metamorphosis and vice versa. They both shake up each other’s world, and we go from things crumbling around them to everything being shiny and happy. We’re missing a hugely potent emotional step – it’s like someone fell overboard and then we cut to them safe, back on the dock. For this story to fully deliver, we would have to see and feel that moment when they rescue each other. So while there is nothing about the ending to make me actively dislike it, it also didn’t fully deliver. There’s something painful in watching a story fall so far short of its potential.
This book’s unusual format – part words, part graphic novel – I found a little annoying only because it was jarring to go back and forth. Frankly I would have preferred the traditional use of illustrations, but I can’t complain too much because the drawings themselves are utterly fantastic. I feel like illustrations are something of a dying art these days and I hope this book (and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series) convince more people to incorporate them, because they add something special.
At heart this is a lovely story about the magic of film and how one boy finds his place in the world due to the legacy of a filmmaker all but forgotten today. There is magic in this story – a vintage, uncynical, childlike sense of magic and wonder, like what you find in The Polar Express. There is also an old school sense of awe at movie magic – and it is entirely fitting that such a book was written by Brian Selznik, a man descended from the famous Hollywood producer David O. Selznik.
There is something special about this book – a lovely world with fascinating puzzles, both physical and mental, and a touching story. It’s only in its lack of ending that it falls short of being truly great. Still, there is plenty of wistful joy to be found in reading this story – it will remind you of when you used to believe in magic.” - bookyurt.com

"Methodically, Selznick drives this story past its origins as a simple cat-and-mouse chase, turning it into a mini-history of cinema’s silent era, as well as a meditation on the contraptions that captivate us. The Invention Of Hugo Cabret is meant to be one of those contraptions, and while Selznick’s drawings lack the sense of animation and narrative drive that traditional cartooning requires—and while his prose is functional at best, fussy at worst—the book’s formal daring is delightful in and of itself. And it’s not just about Selznick showing off either. He’s evoking myths, and ruminating on the potential of both objects and people to be more than they seem. - The AV Club

"The story combines elements of mechanics, magic tricks, and early film history, and the illustrations evoke a sense of wonder and intrigue. While I liked the book overall, I don’t think the story would be as special without the illustrations. In fact, other than a few intriguing elements (like the automation), the text portions of the story were a little slow and repetitive–I felt the story had a bit of a shallow feel to it....
I highly recommend The Invention of Hugo Cabret for 9-14 year olds, as well as adults. I enjoyed it very much. I also recommend it for the reluctant reader who reads on grade level but isn’t generally interested in reading. It would also make a good read aloud for some younger children. Since the illustrations are an integral part of the story, I would only use it as a read aloud for one or two children sitting beside you rather than for a group. I am afraid that in a group setting you’d lose that sense of entering into a movie and following Hugo Cabret on his journey of adventure and discovery.” - Elizabeth Kennedy

Read it at Google Books

Brian Selznick’s website

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