The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: Old movies, mysterious machines
Updated: Apr 19
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Quality of writing: 9.5/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): less
Age level: 12 and up
Hugo Cabret, the young son of a clockmaker, lives alone in the walls of a train station after his father’s death and maintains the station’s many clocks. But he has a secret. Hidden in his tiny room within the train station is an automaton—a mechanical man—which Hugo’s father once owned, and which Hugo saved from the wreckage after the fire that killed his father. Hoping that the mechanism will contain some last message from his father, Hugo painstakingly tries to reconstruct the automaton’s workings using mechanical parts he pickpockets from a nearby toy stand. However, when the owner of the toy stand catches Hugo one day and takes his notebook containing diagrams of the automaton, it sets of a series of revelations that go beyond anything Hugo ever expected, and show that the automaton’s history goes much deeper than simply his father.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret blends history (especially that of early film) with fiction, telling an intriguing story through both pictures and words.
The plot of this book centers mainly around Hugo’s search for information about the automaton and its history, as well as (in the earlier portions of the story) his attempts to survive and fix the automaton by stealing food and mechanical parts. As mentioned above, the plot unfolds partly through narration, partly through pictures a la graphic novel, which sets up an interesting perspective on events for the reader (which also can be slightly confusing at times, but more on that later). The plot involves quite a few flashbacks, which are often narrated through the picture-based sections, as well as plot twists. Although the story does incorporate several tense action sequences, the plot is largely driven by discoveries and dialogue rather than the action itself, and the resolution is similarly crafted. Overall, this story’s plot is engaging and unique, and merits a 9/10.
The protagonist of this book, Hugo Cabret, is in some senses a classic protagonist-figure: poor, disadvantaged, seeking to better himself. However, Selznick doesn’t let this profile remain static, but instead shows readers Hugo’s development over the course of the story, as he is forced to confront his thieving ways in order to work towards a common goal with Papa Georges and Isabelle. Hugo’s development throughout the book is significant and well-written. The other characters are similarly well-done, especially Papa Georges, who is revealed to be Georges Melies, an early French movie maker who eventually fell on hard times and was forced to get rid of his movies and run a toy stand in the train station where Hugo lives. The other characters constitute an intriguing cast as well, and Selznick does a good job of depicting their motivations for readers, making them convincing and fairly well-rounded. (8/10)
The style of writing in this book is not overly complicated, but neither is it incredibly easy—as far as narration goes, it should be easy for most readers to follow, but the dialogue can be a touch complicated at times, particularly when characters are withholding information from each other. Furthermore, the fact that many sections of the story are narrated entirely through pictures presents a unique challenge not found in many other books and could mean the plot proves tricky to follow in some places. However, the overall plot is not terribly convoluted, and most readers of the intended age range should have relatively little difficulty with this book. (4.5/10)
Quality of writing
Selznick does an excellent job in this book of setting up emotional encounters between the characters, albeit ones that genuinely drive the plot forward and aren’t merely melodrama. His characters are, in fact, generally well-crafted and provide a strong basis for the plot to advance. Furthermore, the premise that he’s imagined for this book—a boy living in the walls of a train station, trying to fix an automaton left to him by his father by pickpocketing mechanical parts—is quite honestly a very creative one, and I personally felt that it made the book particularly interesting. Finally, it’s also worth mentioning here that the story does not always proceed through words but occasionally through pictures, which Selznick handles well as a medium of narrative; the pictures themselves are well-done, and the story is certainly the better for having them. Overall, this book includes some distinctive and unique choices in its portrayal of the story, but handles them well on the whole, producing a cohesive and interesting tale. (9.5/10)
This book’s level of concerning content is relatively low, but a few points bear noting nevertheless. There is no problematic sexual content, but in terms of questionable language, a character does exclaim “My God!” at one point. The story also includes some description of alcoholism through the minor character of Hugo’s uncle Claude, whom Hugo remembers drinking heavily and eventually vanishing one night. Claude’s body is later said to have been found in a river, but the actual events of the discovery are only narrated secondhand. At least one character also becomes quite sick during the story, but this is not depicted in great detail; a few minor injuries appear, but largely due to accidents and not violence. One character is nearly run over by a train, but is saved at the last moment. Finally, a few of Hugo’s dream sequences (narrated through pictures) might prove a bit spooky for younger readers, but shouldn’t be a huge issue for most. Overall, while this book has a few notable points in this category, most are minor and should not concern most readers or parents of readers.
Based on this book’s level of concerning content and an overall look at its other qualities, I recommend it for readers aged 12 and up. While its style of writing would certainly be alright for even younger readers, its unique (and potentially confusing) portrayal of story through pictures and its occasional bits of minor concerning content push it into the “12 and up” range. However, as with all other books I review, this is just a recommendation, and readers and parents of readers should exercise their own good judgement in this area.