Andrea's Reviews > The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
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Jan 17, 2009

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Read in January, 2009

I just finished reading Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This is the first time I have read it to completion, although last year I read about 70 pages on my first attempt and put it down for a long while and then picked it up again, only to put it down again. I can understand and appreciate why the book won the Caldecott Award, but I do not particularly enjoy the book myself that much, mostly because of the lack of character development and character voice-things the Caldecott Award has nothing to do with. The story is written with such a lack of depth on the part of who the characters are and what their problems really mean to them, that I fail to get involved enough with this book, and it doesn't call to me to pick it up and find out its secrets-all because of character. My complaint with the book has to do with the writing. Its illustrations are glorious to read, fast moving and informative.

This book does a great job in fitting the criteria for the award. It is individually distinct in its illustrations and I believe it has conspicuous excellence in many ways, specifically to a child audience. The pictures flow easily from one to the next giving the audience just the right amount of information with which to interpret the significance of each pictoral blip-the zooming in and zooming out of the pictures lends the book a movie quality (which holds interesting significance, as the story pertains to early movies) as does the interesting and original angles from which the “shots” are taken, i.e. through the face of the clock, the penetrating gaze of Hugo creating an interesting parallel with the gaze of the old man and the girl...with special master work painting-like techniques: like the hands of the clock first hinted at in the reflection in Papa Georges' eye. There is even a little dream sequence of pictures in the middle to end of the book which is so movie-like in its quality that you almost feel as if you are having someone else's dream. That is all the work of a masterful illustrator/storyteller. Albeit, one that is not as much a writer/storyteller. Kids of the technology age are so adept at “reading” fast-moving visuals from tv, this is like teaching them to read a book (leading them into print literacy) using the skills they have already learned as good tv watchers. A good idea.

I love Brian Selznick’s artwork. I particularly enjoy his illustrations in The Doll People series. Probably because I feel that these books were more well-written, I can appreciate the aptness of the illustrations a little more. The pictures and the text are both of the same level of quality. Whereas, in Hugo Cabret, I wanted the writing to be more on par with the quality of the illustrations. Sometimes in the book, I did not feel the “flow” of images as I do in the beginning, when I think it was at its best- with a momentum of storytelling purpose. Although, I still looked forward to them—that is a real draw of this book:looking forward to the illustrations...and it is what also shows me that the writing is just not as skillfully done as the illustrations. I did not want to “read” more words. I wanted to “read” more pictures.

I should not belabor the point, but there are many reasons why I put this book down, and still, at this point don’t find myself recommending it to children in the library where I work. First of all being, it is not fun. Yes, the pictures are great and I LOVE the graphic novel format of the book giving the reader a break from all that writing—which for kids can be a real nice thing. Again, I found myself looking ahead to when the next picture sequence would be coming up and telling myself to just make it until the next one. The pictures in this book “read” so much better than the text. They really don't match up in terms of their quality. Tone, yes. Storytelling quality, no. But, to that end—I enjoy recommending The Travels of Thelonious by Schade and the rest of the books in his little trilogy, Faradawn and Simon’s Dream. (I recommend teachers read these—they are so much fun and the kids just eat them up, full of ideas about the future, technology, and taking care of the earth) Selznick's book has all the nice, literary devices of tying up loose ends and giving the readers a piece of the puzzle at a time—but not a whole lot of the feel and taste of what good writing can do to the reader in wanting them to come back to those characters' personalities and internal worlds. That is why I don't come to it as the other librarians do with a big “Oh, I know you'll love this!”

A main reason I did not enjoy The Invention of Hugo Cabret as much as I felt I should is that the characters just did not engage me. In one way, the pictures led me to this thought as well: the characters of Isabelle and Hugo are drawn so similarly. Their features are almost identical, except for the longer hair and lashes on the girl. I wanted to know them, and the pictures of them did not do a great job in getting me to do that either, to care for them or to be able to distinguish them from anyone else in this world. They are drawn in a kind-of generic fashion. Hugo could have been the boy from Frindle or the boy in Lunch Money just as well. I did not feel even the slightest bit connected to them, and that is partly due to the illustrations. It is too bad. I did not care if Hugo’s hand was broken or if the old man was this famous movie-making pioneer. (By the way, about whom we never knew why his mood and mental state changed so dramatically from before his work was rediscovered to after he was re-recognized). The illustrations could have helped here a little where the writing failed—in getting to know the characters and care about them. Just looking into their well-drawn, similar eyes wasn't enough.

The fact remains, I don’t care for Briam Selnick’s writing. It lacks emotional depth and sensitivity. His characters don’t engage me and I feel that they lack depth and show very little development as the book progresses. I find out very little more about Hugo or Isabelle’s real person, at the end as I knew in the beginning. I don’t know their personalities or their way of looking at things. None of the character possess real voice. And I think the book is ultimately lacking in any real voice—there is no tone of the book. It is soundly put together, with all the right pieces in place—it has the neat, cleanly-packaged little surprise ending with the book that we are holding being the work of the automataon that Hugo must have made, that being, the Invention of Hugo Cabret, solving our question from the title. All those perfectly matchy-matchy little pieces fitting so perfectly, like Isabelle having the key for the automaton around her neck, and that Hugo’s father’s favorite movie was George Melie’s mvie and that was who was working in the toy booth. So matchy-matchy. It just doesn’t feel artful to just doesn’t feel. And, I feel badly that it doesn’t and to critique it so harshly in this way. It is not an artful piece of writing to me. It feels nice and neat and contrived this way, it lacks true suspense for me and has no real hold on me. The illustrations cannot save the book as a whole from this fate, and I am beginning to notice that they help keep it there, in fact.

The book as a whole just doesn’t really work for me on an abstract-enter-it-into-your-heart-and subconscious level. One of my favorite quotes I read a long time back from someone was about how children's books paint pictures in the soul. I am sure this book may have done this for some people—but, the writing in this book was so lacking of real artful skill, perhaps an abstract and nameless quality, and true voice, and the pictures were well crafted and skillfully sequenced but not expressive just enough so that the book as a whole just did not accomplish this soul-etching for me. It cannot find a nook in my heart like, perhaps, Goodnight Gorilla. The pictures alone can't quite accomplish this for me either. Their sequence is great...but they too often lack voice. The pictures often lack voice. One thing I notice, is the lack of what artist call a contour line or an expressive line. His cross-hatching technique/style is so hazy, that I find myself missing that expressive line that changes in width and darkness as it outlines a shape and lends it, what I would call, voice.

I watched a little Brian Selznick video on (I think it was Scholastic) a website, and he told me everything I already thought: his thoughts when it comes to writing are put together in a sort of a dry, premeditated way, incorporating what he learned through his interest in automatons and early film. I wish I could hear him say, “The characters told me that such and such needed to happen in the story.” or “I felt I got to know Hugo as I was writing this and I wanted to learn more about him myself.” Once again, I just wish he could have had a better hold on me with his writing. But this award is not about that, and so I applaud his work with the illustrations.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Patricia Andrea, I don't have time for a really deep comment except that I really like the book. I was captured by the mystery of the automaton and the weaving in of the first moving picture. I don't have a copy of the book in front of me so I am detail limited. I remember resisting the read; thinking it did not look like fun at all; just some author's gimmick for selling his book. But when I sat down to read if for the Caudill committee, I was delightfully surprised.

Even though I differ from you in my opinion of the book, I learned a lot from reading your review. It must be the book a reader either LOVES or HATES.

message 2: by Toby (new) - added it

Toby Hi Andrea

I wonder if the video you watched was the DVD packaged with the audio version of Hugo Cabret. I found it amazingly helpful, to me and also to kids, to give them the background knowledge they needed to appreciate the story, i.e. information about early films, Selznick's connection and interest in magic, early films, automatons, etc. The subject matter is out of most of our experience but this DVD helps. Maybe we can watch it in class? (I originally saw it in another class with Junko and felt it helped bridge the gap).

Karrie This is what I love about your review -- it's different than everyone else's. It's honest and you certainly make your case. I totally get it because at first I didn't the book either. It was a chore for me to stick with it, even though the pages flipped right along when there was no text. But somewhere along the line it clicked with me and I enjoyed it a bit more. It wasn't until I watched the youtube video of Brian Selznick talking about how he thought about the book that I thought it was an enjoyable book. I also watched the freaky little movie about the spaceship that went to the moon and thought it was a good thing I didn't watch it before I read the book because I probably would've hated the book.

I did enjoy the visual experience of the book, which surprised me because I'm not into graphic novels, although this book technically isn't a graphic it? I did find that as the book went on I liked the pictures more than the text. Oh well.....

Damian Mxyzptlk Spot on!

Andrea Thanks, Damian!

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