The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 2007, 533 pages (300 illustrated), for ages 9 and up, $22.95


A young orphaned boy lives secretly in the main railroad station in 1930s Paris. He apprentices with his uncle, the station's clock-keeper, and assumes his duties when the man disappears, hoping to maintain the fiction that he's not been abandoned and therefore shouldn't be sent to an orphanage. When he isn't foraging for food and drink, he works on a clockwork robot his father had rescued from a ruined museum. He also spies on the proprietor of a booth selling windup toys in the station and occasionally steals small mechanical creatures from him for parts.


"A true masterpiece...a story as tantalizing as it is touching." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"An homage to early filmmakers." -- Kirkus (starred review)

"Evokes wonder...a captivating work of fiction that young readers with a taste for complex plots and a touch of magic can love. This is much more than a graphic novel: it is more like a silent film on paper. Hugo Cabret sits at the nexus of magic and storytelling and film." -- The Sunday New York Times Book Review.


Brian Selznick is a celebrated illustrator for such children's books as Caldecott Honor winner The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, the New York Times "Best Illustrated" book Walt Whitman: Words For America; Sebert Honor winner When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson. He is also author of The Houdini Box, The Boy of a Thousand Faces, and The Robot King.


Not since reading Enid Blyton aloud to my nine-year-old have I enjoyed a children's book as much as The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Its author, Brian Selznick, and I play phone tag as we seemingly chase one another around the country through various time zones. I finally corner him in Northern California, near San Jose, an hour before he is to take wing again. The New York Times Book Review has just anointed him with a full-page review, and his publisher has gone back to press, despite the gargantuan first printing.

"You're a bicoastal person," I say. Brian's longtime partner lives and teaches in California.

"Yes. I spend half the year in La Jolla, the other half in Brooklyn."

"And right now you are touring the country for your new book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

"Yes. The kids at each stop have been really excited, and the grown ups have been great, too."

"I hear a lot of teachers are showing up, librarians and parents, and local authors take the morning off to come hear you speak."

"It's very flattering, yes, and nothing I ever expected."

"Your book involves a man named Georges Méliés, and he may be part of what intrigues your readership. Who was he?"

"Georges Méliès was a magician who became one of the first filmmakers. A lot of them were magicians. They saw a connection between the magic they performed on stage and the magic that was possible on the movie screen. Méliès was famous for a 1902 film called A Trip to the Moon , which was the first science-fiction movie ever made. He made around 500 movies, but he wasn't able to or wasn't interested in keeping up with the advances in film technology. So he went from being a leader in this new art form to being forgotten within 15 or 20 years. Eventually he lost all his money."

"In your novel, he is running a stand in the Paris railroad station, selling mechanical toys."

"Yes, which is what he actually ended up doing the last years of his life."

"Méliés attracts the attention of your hero, young Hugo Cabret, who is a clock-keeper. You've said there's a literal connection between clockmakers and magicians."

"The mechanics of clocks and the mechanisms of magic-making have a lot in common. A man named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was one French clockmaker who became a magician and conjurer. He used his knowledge of clocks in the magic tricks he created. One he made famous was called something like the Orange Tree. It bloomed with items taken from audience members. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin created a good many such automata, mechanical windup figures that did amazing things, like write or draw or swing on a trapeze. He founded and operated a magic theater in Paris for many years, and George Méliès, when he was a magician, bought it and all his machines. Méliès eventually donated them to a museum when he lost his money. There's a book by Gaby Wood called Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life about automata, which has a chapter on Georges Méliès and the collection of machines. Méliès's collection was put up in an attic by the museum and wasn't cared for. The roof leaked on them; a beam fell on the machines. They were ruined and thrown away."

"Which inspired the book."

"Yes. I imagined a boy -- Hugo Cabret -- finding one of the broken robots and trying to fix it."

"Even as he's struggling to survive in the station."


"You've written and illustrated three other kids' books of your own. One is about movies, one about magic, and one is about kids inventing mechanical beings connected to dead parents. In Hugo you explore all three."

"It wasn't what I had set out to do, but yes. All of these came together in Hugo. I loved Houdini and magic when I was a child. I was into robots and science-fiction."

"Your contemporaries who were interested in visual narrative went into film. Were you ever tempted?"

"I really love the form of the book and what happens within the covers...all of the possibilities there. I'm very satisfied with bookmaking. I love watching movies, but I've never really been tempted by the idea of moviemaking, no."

"You are a perennial artist-in-residence at the St. Ann's Puppet Lab in Brooklyn. You also put on one-man shows of your own creation that appear out of suitcases that become their own theaters within the larger theater. Really intriguing."

"Yes, I do have this other life as a puppeteer, although all of the puppetry I've done has grown out of the genre of the toy theater, which was a 19th-century art form -- tabletop miniature theaters. I loved theater when I was in high school and college. I was an actor and wanted to design sets. Puppetry combined all these."

"Your puppet shows aren't intended for children. They are more like performance pieces."

"The puppetry is for adult audiences. My puppets don't have mouths that move...or look like Muppets. It's more about miniature worlds where doors or windows open to reveal something tiny inside. They are like miniature dioramas in which something moves. I did a puppet show about Christine Jorgensen, the first internationally famous male-to-female transsexual. And a piece about Walt Whitman, using a sequence of love poems he wrote to another man. That entire show took place inside a single suitcase with a 3- by 5-inch opening. A small video camera projected the tiny stage onto the wall behind it."

"You went to great lengths to research this book...for more than two years: reading histories, visiting locations, finding live models for the parts, blocking out the story with sketches, replacing descriptions in the text with pictures. It seems like a moviemaker's preparation. So many arrows point to film. And now you have Martin Scorsese interested in Hugo . He is, of course, a film historian himself and a filmmaker."

"That's thrilling, the idea of him directing a movie version. He so deeply understands and loves the early history of cinema. That would surely come through."

"Some of us are wondering where all this is going. We think you're going to wake up one morning to find you've won a MacArthur fellowship for being a genius. It really does seem to be building to some point. We just can't make out what. Like your miniature theater productions, your mute puppets, the drawings, the robots, the magic."

"It's thrilling that people are responding so well to the book now, but I didn't expect any of this to be happening. And it leaves me back at square one -- having to reinvent everything, another form. You can't just make Hugo Cabret again."

"You mean a children's book that defies convention, that's 533 pages long, with 300 illustrations, all black and white like the movies it's partly about, aimed at an audience that's somewhere between 9 and 90? It's so intriguing -- where you're headed." I pause, thinking. "Where are you headed from here?"

"I have no idea."



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