The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

“Hugo quickly realized he had to make it seem like his uncle was still around.  He would keep the clocks running as precisely as possible, and he’d take his uncle’s paychecks from the office when no one was looking (although he didn’t know how to cash them).  Most of all, Hugo would do his best to remain invisible.”

Hugo is a twelve-year old orphan, taken in my his alcoholic uncle, who looks after the clocks in a Paris train station.  When his uncle disappears, Hugo is afraid that if he is discovered, he will be taken to the orphanage…and he can’t bear that, because it would mean giving up on his mystery, the only thing left from his father:  the automaton, a wind-up clockwork robot with a secret inside.

Hugo’s father died in a museum fire, but he left a legacy for Hugo.  He was restoring a battered automaton, a clockwork machine that looks like a human, who carries a secret message inside.  It is an old-fashioned robot that can actually write!   If Hugo can repair it, he can see what message the automaton hides inside.

The story is complicated by a young girl, a mystery about old movies, a heart-shaped key, and a secret drawing.  It unfolds partly in prose, and partly in beautiful, intricate pencil drawings.  I could really stare at these illustrations forever.  So, the story is rich with atmosphere: the drawings evoke a feeling of old-time black and white movies.  The hand illustrations are interspersed with prints from actual old movies, which really add to the effect (and the mystery).

This is a wonderful sharing story, and I think is especially suited to younger readers, or the reluctant reader crowd.   It’s a heady accomplishment: finishing a 500 + page book, but with the combination of the mystery (what message is trapped in the broken automaton?  Who is Georges Melies, anyway?  What does all this have to do with old films? What is going to happen to Hugo?) and the beautiful illustrations, the story flies by.  This is the second time I’ve read it, and each time, I find myself wishing I could just move into the story for a little bit, and look at Paris at night through the back of the clock tower, like Hugo does.

Happy Reading!

Book website:

Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York, Scholastic: 2007.  533 pp, ages 8 and up. ISBN: 978-0439813785

If you liked this book, I think you will also like Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival, or Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  If you want to read more by the same author, try The Houdini Box.