Monday, March 26, 2012

Hugo Cabret

Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: 3rd grade through middle school

The best part of reading as a family may not be sharing your favorites with your kids. It may well be what your kids share with you as their favorites!

Do you realize what a privilege that is? If we want our kids to take our suggestions, we'd better be willing to take some of theirs. When we do, we can find some real gems. My 5th grade daughter had been asking me for 2 years to read this book and I'm glad I finally took a Sunday afternoon to do so.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret takes a story about an unusual artifact (a 19th century automaton - pronounced "a-TOM-a-ton") and explores it in an unusual, graphic writing style. The book won a well-deserved Caldecott Medal for its rich, etching-like illustrations. Though 500 pages in length, it is a short read as illustrations comprise about two-thirds of the book. It defies description because the remarkable topic is combined with a storyline told partly in prose and partly in picture.

Set in the 1930s, Hugo is an orphan living in a Paris train station. He secretly maintains all the clocks as a way to salvage his absent uncle's job. When he discovers a project his deceased father had been working on, Hugo hopes to unlock a special message from his parent. The tension builds as Hugo must avoid discovery by the Station Inspector, appease the resident toymaker, keep all the clocks wound, and complete his father's restoration project.

Now, about that project. The best part for me in this clever story was learning that "primitive," clockworks robots known as automatons did (and do) in fact exist!
These genius European engineers in the late 1700s and 1800s constructed thousands of tiny gears, springs and mechanisms which, upon proper winding, could be made to perform a number of "tricks." Author Selznick takes this historical fact and elaborates it into a fascinating period piece. Combined with a little early movie making, a few magic tricks, and the illustrations aforementioned, it makes for a highly unusual and attractive storybook.

In short, I've never seen anything else quite like it. It would be an especially engaging book for fathers who have any interest in gears, moving parts, or programming.

If all this sounds a bit too odd to grasp, consider this: The Franklin Institute (museum) in Philadelphia possesses the exact automaton Selznick modeled his story after. This robot-like (or clock-like) machine, when wound, can write out on paper one of several poems, or draw one of 4 pictures. This is not science fiction! This is art and science fact. Consider the engineering or programming involved to align the gears and springs in such a way that when a pen is placed in the automaton's hand, it produces the desired effect! Maillardet's Automaton is now over 200 years old. You can view it in action at

Our kids won't always let us through the narrowing window into their world, but we should take them up on the offer when they do. That's how Martin Scorsese came to direct the movie Hugo at the request of his daughter. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it's a visual delight to watch and true to the book. It took home 5 Oscars in sound and visual categories.

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