Monday, November 21, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I don't know much about young adult literature.  When I was young, I always read just plain old adult literature.  My idea of a good book when I was nine years old was an Ian Fleming Bond novel.  I read Stephen King's The Stand in 1988, when I was eleven, when I was supposed to be reading The Princess Bride or whatever else was on my sixth grade reading list.  In fact, the first time I ever read The Outsiders was in 2000, when I was getting ready to teach it to a bunch of eighth graders.

I hadn't heard of Brian Selznick or The Invention of Hugo Cabret utnilthis fall at a teacher conference, in which a middle school teacher was going on and on about Wonderstruck, his most recent book.  Driving home from work that day or the day after, I passed a sign for an exhibition of Selznick's work at the Dixon Gallery here in Memphis.  A few days later, I read a gushing article by Roger Ebert about an advanced copy of Scorcese's Hugo that he had seen, and how this was finally a movie that used 3D to tell a story correctly.

Since the book I had just heard about had instantaneously revealed itself to be an art exhibit and a movie by my second favorite director of all time (here's the first), I thought it would be worth it to go buy a copy.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a book told in both prose and in pictures.  The narrative begins not with words, but with a series of pencil drawings of the full moon as it illuminates the streets of Paris.  The drawings draw our attention to a solitary boy as he walks along in a train station and disappears into a secret opening in the wall.  Like an establishing shot of a movie, the story follows the main character in silence as he goes about his daily routine.  Only after a series of dozens of drawings do we get out first words of the novel.

The story is as filmic as it is textual.  Rather than have illustrations that illuminate what is going on in the prose, The Invention of Hugo Cabret has illustrations that take over the narrative and leave the words behind.  After a few pages of words, the reader gets 20 pages or more of Selznick's drawings, which furthers the plot.

It seems an obvious way to tell a story, but I've never read any book that does it quite like this.

Another thing to know about the book is that it is nearly 600 pages long.  As most of these pages are illustrations, it is an effortless read, but its heft (and price--my copy cost $24.99) is formidable.

The story is far-fetched and drives along with an insistent kind of DaVinci Code motor that never stops chugging.  There are one or two coincidences that stretch the limit of your imagination, and some of the dialogue is awfully stilted.  Still, it has everything a kid could want in a story, and there are enough religious and mythological allusions to keep it interesting for adults.

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