The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Book Review

Brian Selznick's Caldecott Medal Winner

Illustration from The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Copyright 2007 by Brian Selznick. Used with permission from Scholastic Press.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Stunning Format

Reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is like entering into a 1930s black and white movie. Why is that? It’s because of the middle grade novel’s unusual use of illustrations, for which Selznick was awarded the Randolph Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious U.S. award for picture book illustration.

Instead of a 32-page long picture book for younger children, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a 525 page-long novel for 9-14 year olds, set in 1931 Paris.

What makes it a picture book? A large number of those pages (284) contain Selznick's dense pencil drawings.

Just like traditional picture books both illustrations and text are needed to tell the story. As the title page describes the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is "A Novel in Words and Pictures.” Along with the text, numerous sequential double-page spreads of illustrations wordlessly move the reader through time, space, and the story of the orphan Hugo Cabret.

The Story

Orphan Hugo Cabret is on his own when his uncle, with whom he’d been living disappears. Hugo and his uncle shared an apartment hidden away in a busy Paris train station. His uncle was responsible for taking care of the station’s clocks and Hugo assisted him. With his uncle gone, Hugo continues to live at the train station and take care of the clocks.

A mysterious notebook that belonged to his father and a broken automaton - a mechanical man - lead Hugo to:

  • an old man who runs a toy booth in the station and who is not what he seems
  • the old man’s suspicious goddaughter, who becomes Hugo's friend,
  • a life-changing adventure.

The intriguing characters, the unusual setting, the mystery that unfolds, and the book’s format make The Invention of Hugo Cabret a book that will appeal to a wide range of 9-14 year olds.

Author and Illustrator Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and set design at Brown University. After college, he went to work at Eyeore’s Books for Children in New York City. In 1991, while Selznick was still working there, his first book, The Houdini Box, which he both wrote and illustrated, was published. Since then, Selznick has also illustrated many books for children for other authors, including Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Doll People by Ann Martin and Laura Godwin, and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley, a 2001 Caldecott Honor Book.

In addition to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, his first middle grade picture book, Brian Selznick is the author of two others, both excellent - and The Marvels.

(Sources: Scholastic: Brian Selznick Bio, Reading Rockets: Selznick Interview Transcript, NCCIL Artist Profile: Brian Selznick)

My Recommendation

I highly recommend The Invention of Hugo Cabret for 9-14 year olds, as well as adults. I enjoyed it very much. I also recommend it for the reluctant reader who reads on grade level but isn’t generally interested in reading. It would also make a good read aloud for some younger children.

Since the illustrations are an integral part of the story, I would only use it as a read aloud for one or two children sitting beside you rather than for a group. I am afraid that in a group setting you’d lose that sense of entering into a movie and following Hugo Cabret on his journey of adventure and discovery. (Scholastic Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780439813785)

During the making of the movie version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, , Brian Selznick was involved in the production and wrote an excellent book about it, The Hugo Movie Companion: A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture.  Later, he wrote another excellent middle reader book with hundreds of illustrations, .