There comes a time once every blue moon when a novelist comes out with something so original that there really isn’t anything to compare it to. One of those rare books is The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
When I first encountered this book the thing that surprised me was how thick it is. This is supposed to be a young adult book and it is about as thick as a sci-fi/fantasy novel. But hey, the last four Harry Potter books are about that thick and five year olds can read them in a day, right? When I opened the book up for the first time I was greeted with ten pages of pencil drawings followed by two pages of text.
That’s essentially the entire book. Pencil drawings and then text. Either many pages of drawings and two pages of text or vice versa. This is actually a really unique and well done technique. The pictures are not just random pictures put in there just to look nice. They are sequential so they tell a narrative. The text is there to enhance what is going on with the characters and for character development.
The story itself is about an orphan named Hugo Cabret who lives in the clock tower of a train station in 1930s France. It is here that he spends most of his time trying to fix his father’s life work: An automaton. His life takes a strange turn when his father’s notebook is taken by a toy shop owner (it’s to teach Hugo a lesson to not steal from him.) The book is also split into two parts. The first part is about fixing the automaton and the second is finding answers to what the automaton did, which also leads to Hugo finding out about his father’s past.
The story is actually quite enjoyable. It’s a simple story, yes, but it is written in such an engaging way that it grabs you from the start and never lets go. The pencil drawings also help a lot, too. The drawings bring this world to life, shows a lot of detail and are much better done than many comic book artists can dream of.
Of course, some people will say that this is an easy way out of writing out details and character emotion. On the contrary, this book needs these drawings for two reasons. The first is because a character’s facial expression is very important to the story. The second is because, as you read further, movies are a big important part of the characters’ lives. To go into detail will just bring about spoilers.
Of course, there is one black cloud to the story. That is the real identity of the toy shop owner. His true identity is so out of left field that it feels very phoned in. It makes sense in story, but once you think about it it does bring up ton of questions.
Despite that one black cloud, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is one of the most original and best books this decade. The story is entertaining with strong visuals and writing. That Caldecott Medal was well deserved.