At over 500 pages, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press 2007) may appear initially daunting to readers, but its bright dust jacket definitely seduces, and when one thumbs through the pages, it’s clear that text is only one component of a book that is part movie, part graphic novel, part picture book. It’s quite likely there has never been another book quite like this one. It enthralls not only the Harry Potter type reader but also adults. And, it is important to thumb through some of the pictures of the book because they are almost like old-fashioned movie stills that when thumbed make a progressive scene. I’m suspecting this is one reason that the novel attracted the attention of filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
The narrative focuses on orphan Hugo Cabret, who lives in the Gare Montparnasse (Railway Station) in 1930s Paris with his uncle, who is the timekeeper of its many clocks. The apartment behind the walls provides a refuge for Hugo, who has taken to stealing his daily milk and croissants since his alcoholic uncle has not returned home for many days. Hugo’s father worked in a museum, and he is fascinated by an automaton located in the attic there, a mechanical man poised with pen in hand, seemingly on the verge of writing something. A fire burns the museum and kills Hugo’s father. In the ashes, Hugo finds the automaton, brings it back to the apartment, and slowly begins restoring it. Meanwhile, from the safety behind a glass-faced clock, Hugo spies on an interesting toy stall in the station, staffed by a melancholy elderly man. The connection between the toy-seller and the automaton is gradually revealed with the help of his goddaughter Isabelle and her friend Etienne, a movie aficionado. But before this happens, Hugo is in danger of being crushed by a train or arrested by the police.
The secret of the book lies in early movie history and the filmmaker Georges Melies, whose most famous film, A Trip to the Moon (1902) is typically on film studies syllabi. Melies is second only to the Brothers Lumiere, leading French film innovators. I saw A Trip to the Moon in my film classes, a fascinating mix of science fiction and fantasy, so Melies was a familiar name to me. I had been eyeing this book for some months, largely due to its fabulous dust jacket with its black and white detailed pen and ink drawing of a boy, who happens to be Hugo, the narrator. This is an ageless book, enjoyable for children through adults. It’s really a marvel of invention. And, by the way, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I believe, has a double meaning. Yes, he does invent, but he also is a creature that is invented himself.
Awards for this notable book include the following: Newbery Honor Book; National Book Award Finalist in YA Division; 2008 Caldecott Medal Winner (illustration); New York Times Top Ten Best Illustrated List; and the Quill Award.
A second book set in Paris and written for a children’s market but entirely appropriate for adults is Adam Gopnik’s The King in the Window (Hyperion, 2005; 410 pages). Set in contemporary Paris—which is lovingly described—this first book for young readers by Adam Gopnik, who is an award-winning writer for The New Yorker and who also wrote the adult book, Paris to the Moon, features 12-year-old Oliver Parker, who unwittingly becomes “king” of the windows one Epiphany when he forgets to take off his crown and sees not only his reflection in the window but also a window “wraith.”
A war exists between the windows and the mirrors in this fantasy-adventure that takes Oliver to another world, called The Way. The wraiths include Moliere, Racine, and other historical figures. Part of the plot rests on the new “technology” of making mirrors that was popularized during Louis XIV’s reign. (Think Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.) The evil character is the Master of Mirrors. Which is better? Windows or mirrors? Which one reflects people more accurately? Woven into the story is Oliver’s difficulty with the subjects at his French school—logic, rhetoric, metaphor, irony—the same subjects that reigned supreme during the seventeenth century. Through his battle with evil, Oliver comes to understand and appreciate his school topics.
As with many adolescent novels, his parents are fairly “absent”; his father is wrapped up in researching and writing a journalistic story, and his mother, seemingly attentive, misses clues about Oliver’s involvement in this adventure, accepting Oliver’s cover stories at face value. There are charming other characters: Mrs. Pearson (a witty but cutting Brit living in Paris), Charlie (Oliver’s computer savvy pal from NYC who pops across the pond to help). There is a subplot about a supercomputer atop the Eiffel Tower that seems non-essential.
A fan of Gopnik’s for his articulate and intelligent New Yorker essays, I was very interested in this novel. Although the stated audience is fairly young—middle school—the text is actually sophisticated. For instance, as a rhetorician, I was amazed to see a discussion of rhetoric and its history. While my immediate impression is that this sort of discussion is probably above the heads of most readers this age, I then remember the sophistication of the Harry Potter novels, and adjust my thinking. The novel does take some time to kick into gear, owing to the exposition required to explain the setting and the issues. At the halfway point of the story, Oliver is still trying to discover what the conflicts are. I loved the descriptions of Paris scenes; they are evocative and accurate. I suspect that the novel will have a bi-modal distribution of readers: those who love it, and those who find it slow and not engaging.
P.S. I was in the audience at the Fort Worth Museum of Contemporary Art when Gopnik gave a lecture on Richard Avedon and the 20-year retrospective of his photographic exhibition, “Into the West.” It was one of the best lectures I have every heard, an exemplar of the rhetoric which Oliver has trouble understanding in his lycee. The King in the Window is dedicated to Gopnik’s son but also to the memory of Avedon, who is his godfather.