Wednesday, January 25, 2012


By Brian Selznick

(Scholastic, 2007)

It is worth celebrating that two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees are based on screenplays adapted from children’s books. Has that ever happened before? First, there is WAR HORSE, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. As well, there is HUGO, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (I have yet to see either movie. Books first!)

Hugo Cabret tells the story of a boy who secretly lives within the walls of a train station in Paris. As with so many protagonists in children’s novels, he is completely on his own. His father recently perished in a fire and Hugo’s only living relative is an unpredictable alcoholic uncle left one night and never returned. Hugo lives in his uncle’s tiny apartment, worried that he’ll be sent to an orphanage if he should be discovered living alone. So as not to arouse suspicion, he spends his days completing the duties of his uncle’s job, fixing and winding the many elaborate clocks in the train station. (In an age of digital time telling, I wonder how many young readers would benefit from a lesson about old clocks and hand-wound pocket watches.)

Hugo survives as best he can, stealing milk and baked goods from local merchants. Should he be caught, he knows the Station Inspector will send him to jail. Still, Hugo’s thievery involves more than food. He takes wind-up novelties from a sour old toy booth owner. These toys—and the shop owner—serve a greater purpose, integral to the story.

Like the previously reviewed (but later-written) Wonderstruck, Hugo Cabret is a both a hefty volume and a quick page turner. Selznick advances the story, alternating between textual passages and sketch sequences. Some written pages have more white space than words, a design necessity when the next page turn leads to a series of sketches. If only the words were included in the book, Hugo Cabret would amount to about 150 pages. The sketches and the authentic stills from silent movies create the heft, making the book come off the presses at over 500 pages. I am sure there was a great deal of discussion about whether the drawings could be reduced or eliminated to cut costs. Thankfully the visual reading remains a key part of the book. Readers will find great satisfaction in advancing so quickly through a massive book. How satisfying to finish a tome as thick as a briefcase!

Forget Diary of a Wimpy Kid....Up next, War and Peace. Or another Selznick book.

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