Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 14, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Hugo Cabretby Brian Selznick

I found this book while shelving at my library during a volunteering stint. I had never heard of it before, but one quick flip through proved it to be highly interesting. I couldn’t take it home that day but I added it to the TBR list that I keep on my iPhone. Throughout the next couple of weeks I came across reviews on other blogs which were full of praise (Bethany and Claire).

I finally picked it up three days ago, thinking it would be a good thing to read while simultaneously finishing the last 100 pages of the second volume of Proust. However, I sped through all 530 pages of it in the space of two slow shifts at the theater!

The story is simple – a young boy lives within the walls of a busy Paris train station, keeping the clocks running after his drunkard uncle disappears. He is systematically stealing small toys from a booth at the station because he needs the parts to fix a mechanical man that his father was working on right before he died in a fire. When he is finally caught by the mysterious old man who runs the toy booth, the gears of his life start popping out. A precious notebook is taken from him, the old man’s goddaughter is determined to find out all his secrets, and the station master begins to noticing that the clocks are starting to slow down…

What makes this rather predictable plot original are the 284 pages of drawings that push the story into a new type of reading experience. The illustrations often pick up and carry the action along for a few pages, before slipping seamlessly back into text. I liked what Claire said about the images looking like the storyboard for a movie. They’re full of dramatic elements. One chase sequence had me flipping pages so fast that I nearly tore one out!

Aside from the drawings, the aspect of the book that I liked best was it’s historical and true context. The cinematic theme is very strong, and throughout the story a variety of old movies are mentioned (several of which are now on my TBW list!) The old toymaker (mild spoiler ahead, sorry) is revealed to be Georges Melies, who was an early filmmakers and a pioneer in special effects and the limits of what was possible at the time. He made over 500 movies, which were anywhere from 1 minute to 45 minutes long. The most famous of these is A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902. A large portion of these films were destroyed – melted down to make shoe heels during WW1! It’s been in the back of my head to track down some of the films that survived and are still available – now would be a good time to do so.

The other really cool thing about the book is that there is a real life mechanical man who can write and draw. The inspiration for Selznick’s book was a real automaton, which really did get nearly destroyed in a fire and then when it was fixed, started drawing and writing poems! The Maillardet automaton is now housed at the Franklin Institute, and they have some history about it and some YouTube videos of the little fellow in action here.

On the whole The Invention of Hugo Cabret is really interesting and quite a wonderful, and different, experience. I definitely recommend it. 🙂


  1. I read this for book group a while ago, and really liked it. It would be really cool if a full length novel got translated into that kind of book.

  2. Since you’re at least the third trustworthy blogger I’ve seen who’s recommended this, Sarah, I guess I better get on the ball pretty quick! Btw, Flicker Alley released a five-DVD Méliès set last year. It’s pretty pricey at $90, but you might see if you can get it from ILL because it’s a deluxe package job with lots of rarities.

  3. Kelia – That would be pretty cool – but just imagine how HUGE the book would be!

    Richard – “Pretty quick” is right – you’ll blaze through it. It’s really satisfying to finish a 500+ page book in less than a day! Thanks for the heads up about the Melies set. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure a friend of mine bought it earlier this year. He ought to have, anyway, being something of a film historian – I’ll have to see if he’ll let me get my (not grubby, I promise!) hands on it. 🙂

  4. Oh yeah, I saw this on Betheny’s post too and just got myself a copy – I’m looking forward to reading / mowing through it! 🙂

    Btw, where does the name “tuulenhaiven”come from? Sounds Finnish, but I’m not sure…

  5. I am so glad you loved this too!! I am always a little nervous….I just don’t want someone to hate it. ;P I should have known though, this is an absolute winner! Great review.

  6. Eva – Tuulenhaiven was the name given to me by a Finnish girl I met through a Lord of the Rings fan site many years ago. She told me it meant something like ‘a tickling wind’.

    Bethany – Thanks for stopping by – a winner indeed, and hopefully the word will keep spreading!

  7. “Update:” I just finished this last night – I loved it!

  8. Yay, glad you liked it Eva!

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