Book Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Thorough book review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick ~ What My Kids Read The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a celebration of early movies – the seemingly magical, fantastical experiences they presented. It is unlike any book I have ever read. It has lots of pages (about 530 in my copy), but half of the story is in black and white pictures and photos, so it’s a quicker read than you might expect. There are chapters and then many pages of pictures, not illustrating what was described in the chapter, but continuing the story. Really a fun, unique book! The book’s website says “The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was made into a movie called Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese). I think they did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the book. The official website is pretty neat, and you can see the opening sequence of drawings. Very fun! Now to be honest, this book isn’t one that we own, or that we re-read, but it really was a delight to read through once. I think the writing isn’t as compelling as the illustrations. Other kids might enjoy re-reading it, but mine just enjoyed the experience. It is definitely the kind of book that would be fun to read out loud together.

It is based on a real man, Georges Méliés, who created films around the beginning of the 1900s. Several early films are mentioned, and it might be fun to look for them, if your kids enjoy this book.

Parents should be aware that Hugo tragically lost his father in a fire and had to live with an alcoholic uncle who teaches Hugo to steal (sometimes it was the only way to eat). There is a lot of disobedience, stealing, and lying in this story. It is not encouraged, but it would be difficult for the events of this book to happen without the children disobeying, stealing, and lying. I still feel it is fine for my kids to read, but you might want to talk with your kids about Hugo and Isabelle’s moral choices.

The message of this book is that everyone has a place in this world, a function or reason they exist. It is also clearly a celebration of the importance of art, creativity, and imagination.

My Mom-Meter gives The Invention of Hugo Cabret an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 8 and up.

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Click here to skip to Liam’s review of this book

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

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Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsModerately Safe

BullyingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Disrespectful AttitudesSafe - no actual four-letter words

GamblingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorSafe - no actual four-letter words

LanguageSafe - no actual four-letter words

Magic/SupernaturalModerately Safe

MoralityModerately Safe

Romance/SexSafe - no actual four-letter words

Scary ThemesModerately Safe

ViolenceSafe - no actual four-letter words

 

Plot summary of The Invention of Hugo Cabret: ***Contains Spoilers***

Wikipedia’s summary of the movie adaptation, Hugo (that’s an affiliate link), is also a good summary of the book. You can read it here.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in The Invention of Hugo Cabret:

  • Hugo believes that his father’s death was all his fault. “He had wanted his father to fix the machine, and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Was it really Hugo’s fault?
  • Hugo finds the automaton, “like an accusation, reminding Hugo that everything in his life had been destroyed.” Do you think Hugo wanted to fix the automaton because he thought it would fix his life?
  • Hugo is very afraid of being caught by the Station Inspector, locked up and sent to the orphanage. It almost all happens to him, but it isn’t as bad as he thought it would be. Have you ever been afraid of something happening that wasn’t so bad when it happened?
  • Hugo has his own rules for stealing: “He preferred to pay for what he could with the coins that he found each week, and he tried not to steal anything he thought people needed. He took clothes from the lost and found and scavenged the garbage for day-old bread. Sometimes he allowed himself to steal fresh bottles of milk or pastries when they were left outside the cafe early in the morning, as his uncle had shown him. The toys, of course, had been an obvious exception to the rule.” Do you think that it was right for Hugo to steal the way he was? What would you do if you were in his situation?
  • Isabelle and Hugo sneak into the movies. Isabelle is disobeying her godparents, and by sneaking in, both children are stealing from the theater. Was it right for the children to sneak into the theater? Why?
  • Georges was “among the first to demonstrate that film didn’t have to reflect real life.” He told Mr. Tabard as a boy, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around [the movie studio]. This is where they are made.” Do you think that movies are just like real life should be? What movies have you seen that reflect real life? What movies have you seen that are more like a dream? What are your favorite kinds of movies?
  • Hugo tells Isabelle “I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.”  You might want to talk with your child about what your family believes about purpose and the meaning of life.

Alcohol/Drugs:

  • Hugo’s Uncle Claude is an alcoholic. He shows up with his “breath smelling of alcohol as usual.” He drinks from a “greasy silver flask” and he is referred to by others as the “drunken Old Timekeeper.”
  • The move theater manager smokes a cigarette.

Bullying:

  • Uncle Claude “yelled at Hugo, rapped his knuckles when he made mistakes, and forced him to sleep on the floor.”
  • Georges tells Hugo “Children like you aren’t worth the rags you wear… Maybe you will prove that there is more to you than being a thief.”

Disrespectful Attitudes:

  • Hugo growled and spit on the floor when the old man in the toy booth caught him stealing.

Gambling:

  • Georges tells Hugo that he will be gambling with his time “because you might work for me for months and months only to find out that you were wrong about the notebook.”
  • The phrase a “lost lottery ticket” is used once.

Gross Behavior: None

Language:

  • “My God!” is said once.

Magic/Supernatural:

  • Ghosts are mentioned  several times throughout the book by the old man who own the toy booth at the train station (Papa Georges). You later learn that he was once a famous filmmaker, and when the war came, he was forced to give his celluloid films to a factory to be turned into shoe heels. Georges says to Hugo, “Don’t you know that the sound of clicking boot heels can summons ghosts? Do you want to be followed by ghosts?”
  • There isn’t any true magic in this book, but Georges was once a magician, good at magic tricks. It is clear that it is a learned skill, and not a special power. Hugo’s dad tells him, “Some magicians started off as clock makers. They used their knowledge of machines to build these automata to amaze their audiences… It was as if the magicians had created artificial life, but the secret was always in the clockworks.”
  • Hugo hears a voice that tells him to fix the automaton. “Hugo didn’t know if it was his own thoughts, or if it was a ghost, but he had heard it clearly.”
  • When Hugo meets Isabelle at the bookstore, it says “like a mermaid rising from an ocean of paper, the girl emerged across the room.”
  • Hugo learns card tricks from a book and from the old man.
  • Etienne pulls a coin from his eye patch and tells Hugo it’s the “only magic trick I know.”
  • When Hugo and Isabelle discover Georges’ drawings, the illustrations show strange, fantastical drawings of a winged creature, a head exploding, a man looking out of a planet, a knight riding a fish, a fire-breathing griffith, and a fairy with a tiny man “charming” a caterpillar.
  • Georges refers to himself as a “lost monster.” “I am nothing… an empty box, a dry ocean, a lost monster….”
  • There are photos, stills of a Georges Méliés’ film, where there is a woman sitting in the seat, but on the next page, there is a skeleton where the woman was.
  • Isabelle reads Hugo stories of Greek mythology. Mount Olympus, chimera, phoenix, and Prometheus are mentioned. Prometheus is talked about several times, as Papa Georges painted a picture of Prometheus.
  • “Prometheus had created humankind out of mud, and then stolen fire from the gods as a gift for the people he had made, so they could survive.”
  • “I thought it looked like a palace in a fairy story.”
  • When Uncle Claude’s body is found in the river, people says that “his ghost kept the clocks running” and that the station is haunted (even though Hugo actually kept the clocks going).
  • When the crowd watches Papa Georges’ movies, the book shows stills from the movies: mermaids and fish with teeth, angels with wings on roofs, a woman as a comet, and a skeleton horse pulling a coach, among other things.
  • Georges says “As I look out at all of you gathered here, I want to say that I don’t see a room full of Parisians in top hats and diamonds and silk dresses. I don’t see bankers and housewives and store clerks. No. I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians.”
  • The term “alchemist” is mentioned once.

Morality:

  •  Hugo steals toys for the parts because he “needs” them to fix the automaton his father had been working on when he died.
  • Hugo hides the fact that his uncle has been missing for months (Hugo finds out close to the end of the book that his uncle has been dead).
  • “Uncle Claude taught Hugo how to steal, which  Hugo hated more than anything, but sometimes it was the only way to get something to eat.”
  • The old man, Georges, lies to Hugo and tells him that he burned Hugo’s notebook. He gives Hugo ashes to “prove” it.
  • Hugo has his own rules for stealing: “He preferred to pay for what he could with the coins that he found each week, and he tried not to steal anything h thought people needed. He took clothes from the lost and found and scavenged the garbage for day-old bread. Sometimes he allowed himself to steal fresh bottles of milk or pastries when they were left outside the cafe early in the morning, as his uncle had shown him. The toys, of course, had been an obvious exception to the rule.”
  • Hugo starts stealing mechanical parts from the toy booth even after he was caught and had to work for the old man.
  • Isabelle picks the lock, and Isabelle and Hugo sneak into the movies.
  • Hugo lies to Isabelle and tells her that the automaton was his father’s.
  • Hugo gives Isabelle a big hug in order to steal the key off of her necklace. He learns later that Isabelle stole the key from her godmother.
  • Hugo and Isabelle hide the Monsieur Tabard plans to come visit Papa Georges.

Potentially Offensive Behavior: None

Romance/Sex:

  • Hugo gives Isabelle a big hug in order to steal the key off of her necklace.

Scary Themes: 

  • Hugo’s dad stays late at the museum one night to work on the automaton. He is accidentally locked in, and the museum burns down.
  • Hugo thinks he will escape his uncle, but he is afraid that he will freeze to death.
  • Hugo is very afraid that the Station Inspector will find out that Uncle Claude is gone, and that Hugo will be locked up and sent to an orphanage.
  • A “Portuguese Rocket,” a type of firework, burned Etienne’s eye, and that is why he wears an eye patch.
  • Isabelle’s parents died in a terrible car accident when Isabelle was a baby.
  • There is a photo of a still from a movie about a train accident. There aren’t any people in the photo, but the train has burst through the train station. Hugo dreams about this, and then later is nearly hit by a train before being yanked to safety.
  • Uncle Claude’s body is said to have been found in the river.

Violence:

  • Isabelle fight Hugo and they rip the automaton’s drawing.
  • Isabelle crushes Hugo’s fingers in the door. He is injured enough that he cannot take care of the clocks in a timely manner.

From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “I really enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s easy to read and fast-paced. It reminded me of The Mysterious Benedict Society series. If you like mysteries, you will like this book.”

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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Comments

  1. This was such a fun book!!

  2. There is so much to love about this book. It was well hyped before publication and I got my copy of it right after it came out. All the hype was deserved. It was the clear favorite for taking the Caldecott Award that year and there was also strong speculation that it could take the Newbury as well, but that didn’t happen. As it is, it’s the only novel to ever win the Caldecott, and it was a highly deserved win. It’s a very significant piece of children’s literature.

So what do you think?

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