CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 16 . . . . March 30, 2007
Where to begin?
This is a difficult book to review in that, on the one hand, I am reviewing a full-length novel, and on the other hand, I am reviewing a wordless picture book. Quite the combination—a seemingly mutually exclusive combination!
Over five hundred pages in length, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a stunning, innovative book. In some places, the printed text continues, uninterrupted, for several pages, while in other places, the illustrations take over and a not a word appears for as many as 42 pages in a row. After a brief introduction, the first page of printed text does not appear until page 46. Even on the pages where there are words, there is lots of variety. The text on some pages is heavy, while on others, there might only be two or three lines of words.
The pictures in this book do not merely illustrate what is described in the text. Rather, as in the case of a wordless picture book, they bear the weight of carrying the story forward. It is a good thing, therefore, that the illustrations are so enticing. The greyscale illustrations are in pencil with crosshatch shading, lending a moody cloak of intrigue to the mysterious tone of the book.
As a reading experience, immersing oneself in The Invention of Hugo Cabret is nothing short of fascinating. The manner in which we read traditional print text is generally linear—we proceed along lines from left to right and top to bottom. Looking at wordless art, however, is not a linear experience. Depending on how the artist has constructed the image, our eyes are drawn in different directions—first here, then there, then, perhaps, back over here. Then, in turning the page to the next image, our eyes might dance in completely different directions. One might critically argue that such a juxtaposition of word and wordless might create a confused, discombobulating experience. Somehow, however, that was never the case here. Brian Selznick’s creative genius has landed upon a formula that works to perfection.
In terms of taking us where we have never gone before, the presentation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret reminds me of Shaun Tan’s new book The Arrival—a 128-page wordless picture book, also illustrated in greyscale. With children’s authors and illustrators thinking in such uniquely imaginative ways, there seems no limit to what the future of children’s literature might hold. It is an exciting time, indeed, to be involved in the world of books for children.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an attractively presented book. The paper is thick and, as such, at first glance, the book seems likely to have many more pages than the 533 that it does have. Encased in a hard cover, and with thread-sewn binding, the book has a durable appearance and nature. Each page, whether illustrated or not, is framed in a black border that somehow adds further to the mysterious mood of the book.
But, I guess, enough of the book features. No matter how attractive a book might be as a concept, if the content is unappealing, any book will fail. In this case, although the content does not (probably can not) match the book features, the story is still strong. Hugo Cabret is a lovable character trying to make do as an orphan boy in 1931 Paris. Hugo has inherited his dead uncle’s responsibility of being timekeeper of a busy Paris railway station. With a gift for mechanical gadgetry, Hugo is the ideal candidate to ensure the train station’s 27 clocks are all kept running. Hugo lives inside the walls of the train station—he accesses his hideaway by crawling through an air vent.
Hugo’s path crosses with that of Georges Méliès, a true-life historical figure. Méliès was a prominent figure in early cinema, producing over five hundred films. Yet another of the intriguing book features is the inclusion of several stills from Méliès’ black-and-white films. Hugo and Méliès initially despise one another, but as Selznick’s tale unfolds, they find themselves irreversibly draw to one another.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a fascinating book. Throughout the creative process, Brian Selznick has clearly been thinking well outside the box and, for so doing, he is to be congratulated. The Invention of Hugo Cabret perhaps provides a glimpse into the future of children’s literature.
Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature classes at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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