Chris has an interesting discussion going on at his blog, something that grew from a comment about how wonderful it is when you open a book with few - if any - expectations, and then it turns into one of your favorite books of all time. It is extraordinary moments like those that keep me reading and trying all kinds of different books.
This novel is the perfect example. I have no recollection of putting it on hold from my library, but one day I came into work, and there it was, sitting in my mailbox. I was astonished to see it was a children's book - not even young adult - because it is about three inches thick, no exaggeration. It sat on my book pile for a couple of weeks, until finally I felt ready to dedicate a huge chunk of time to this book about which I knew nothing.
Well. I opened it and read the brief introduction. Then, to my astonishment, I was treated to a series of beautiful black-and-white illustrations, like very detailed frames in a comic strip. The images slowly zoom in from outer space, over the city of Paris in the 1930s, to the train station, and into the station, where we find a boy. The boy moves down a hallway and into an ally, checks around furtively, then slips through a grate into a series of passageways. Eventually we find him staring through a number in the face of an enormous clock. He is looking at an old man working at a toy booth.
I flipped through these illustrations, entranced, and then I came to a section of text, which picked up where the picture story had left off. The entire novel is written in this way: a short section of text, followed by intriguing illustrations that continue the story, and then some more text. We find that the boy is Hugo, an orphan who's been living with his uncle, who is in charge of maintaining the train station clocks. His uncle has disappeared, but Hugo is good with clocks and has kept them running ever since. He has nowhere to go - the tiny room in the hidden passageways of the station is his refuge, and he lives in fear of the station master discovering what has happened and kicking him out.
That is just one of Hugo's many secrets. He has a special notebook, filled with drawings of gears and moving parts, mechanical things, and he has been stealing toys from the toymaker, but to what purpose? When the toymaker catches him and takes Hugo's precious notebook, the young girl who also works at the toy booth tells Hugo she will help him get it back. The book is extremely important to Hugo, but it is also is full of secrets, and he has learned not to trust anyone. How can he accept her help?
The story moves through twists and turns, revealing surprises and connections involving Hugo's father, silent movies, magic tricks, and a mysterious clockwork automaton. Characters, plot, dialog and illustrations combine to transport the reader to the Paris of long ago, and it is indeed a rude awakening to return to the 21st century at the end of the book. In the acknowledgments the author discusses the factual basis for the book, with websites to visit for more information, and it is fascinating. I highly recommend this novel!
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press, 2007)
Also reviewed at:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf