Saturday, November 17, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo is a desperate orphan, living inside the walls of a Paris railroad station with the broken, flame-singed, and corroded figure of a mechanical man, an automaton created by his father. Hugo also lives with persistent mysteries. The automaton and a notebook of related diagrams and drawings are all that are left of Hugo's father, who died in a fire in the museum where the robotic man had been warehoused, and the tiny apartment within the station is all that is left of Hugo's uncle, the drunken timekeeper of the station's clocks who disappeared suddenly, leaving Hugo alone to carry on his work.

Fearing life in an orphanage, Hugo conceals his uncle's presumed death by keeping the clocks running and survives by stealing food from the station's shops. When he can, Hugo also steals mechanical parts from a crotchety old toy maker's kiosk to repair the automaton, a seated humanoid figure which apparently was designed to write or draw when wound up with a now-lost key. When Hugo is seized during a theft, the storekeeper confiscates his notebook and warns him to stay away. The toy maker's goddaughter Isabelle, however, secretly returns the notebook and, discovering Hugo's hideaway, becomes involved in solving the mystery of the robot's design and purpose.

The clues begin to fall together as Hugo realizes that Isabelle is wearing the key to the automaton as a pendant, and when the two children finally make the machine work, they determine from the picture it draws that the machine was indeed made for a work of the renowned early filmmaker Georges Melies. Investigations by the two determine that Melies is in actuality Isabelle's godfather, the irascible toymaker, and when the French Film Academy becomes aware of their findings, Melies is paid for his long-unclaimed work, adopts Hugo, and presides over a gala showing of his 87 early works which had been unrecognized for years. At this glittering affair a new automaton, created together by Melies and Hugo Cabret, proceeds to produce a complex work of 159 illustrations and a story of 26,159 words, entitled, voila', The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

What has made this tale a sensation among reviewers is not simply the story itself, but the way it is told in text and in an intricate series of graphic illustrations. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has been described as part graphic novel and part film, a masterwork which may change the nature of children's fiction.

Selznick's book was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist and is likely to be considered for one of the Newbery awards as well.

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