The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

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While I loved the gorgeous illustrations in Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I was entertained by the story, I found the writing amateur and the developing plot overdramatic. In the end, however, I liked this children’s novel, as “unbalanced” as it felt.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an illustrated novel which I would call a middle grade “picture book novel.” The illustrations function much like illustrations function in a picture book: the story is incomplete without them. I loved Selznick’s pencil drawings and found reading a “picture book novel” absolutely delightful. The medium fit the story perfectly.

In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, recently orphaned Hugo lives in the Paris train station, where he maintains the clocks. Hugo has a secret item relating to his father’s death that he feels he must repair, and therefore he feels he must steal. When the owner of the toy booth catches him stealing, Hugo loses his precious notebook. In the process of striving to recover the notebook, he begins a journey where he finds the truth about his secret.

To me, the story felt like a Disney sitcom: people just happened to be in the right place at the right time; the characters didn’t seem well developed or substantive; the characters overreact to just about everything. The story and characters didn’t feel realistic. The illustrations, on the other hand, were the opposite: the characters were incredibly detailed and intriguing; I wanted to see them; I wanted to learn more about them; I felt drawn in to the setting. Because the quality of the story didn’t match the quality of the illustrations, I was somewhat bothered.

I concede that because I am not a child, I cannot give an “objective” review of a children’s book. For me, then, the question is whether or not I’d encourage my child to read this book. To that, I can whole-heartedly answer “Yes.” Despite its failings, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an intriguing medium for a story, and the excellent illustrations make reading it worthwhile.

Reviewed on June 19, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • @Jessica: Reading this was an experience, I agree! I hope that others follow on the idea of illustrated novel. I simply wish the author had spent a little more time fine tuning the text, fleshing out the characters, and making it less predictable. When I say it reminds me of a Disney sitcom, I don’t necessarily meant that it is bad: Disney sitcoms have their place!

  • I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve heard great things about it. I think it’s good that I’ve read a less than glowing review before picking it up, though, because it will allow me to adjust my expectations. Sometimes hearing nothing but great things about a book can lead to disappointment.

  • @Nymeth:

    I think the glowing reviews made my expectations high for this one. It’s not that it was bad–the illustrations were great, but the story and writing was mediocre and that didn’t meet my expectations. Overall, pretty good, though.

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