The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Straightforward, with Bouts of Wonder
Hugo’s story may be told quite straightforwardly, but that doesn’t mean that the tone lacks in pizazz or fun. Even when confronting a lot of dark, dark issues (you know, being orphaned, having your life dreams shattered, the war… ), the book steers clear of growing too heavy or depressing.
Instead, it focuses on the process of moving forward in the story, which is a little ironic when you think about just how stuck in the past Georges Méliès is. Maybe that’s part of the point though—the tone stays light enough so that we as the readers never get mired in the ugly stuff. We have to keep flipping pages to join in the adventure:
Hugo ran until he found himself back inside his secret room. He tried to turn on the light, forgetting, as he usually did, that the bulb in the ceiling had burned out. (1.5.1)
Even when Hugo is depressed over losing his notebook, everything is still told—one action after another. There’s no wallowing as we follow Hugo’s path.
Writing with Wows
But that's not to say that Hugo doesn't have his moments of sheer wonderment and amazement. Every time the automaton or film comes into play, you can feel the excitement and buzz in the writing.
When we see the fallen images of Papa Georges’ sketches and drawings (I2.2.6-12) all the images are of fantastical creatures, dream-like sketches, and people dressed up as mermaids and other magical beings. Like a shining gem amongst all the filth, it’s the magic of the film industry (and the magic of magic itself!) that keeps the characters and the story moving onward.
Sketches and a Look at the Past
Most of the illustrations are done as black and white pencil sketches, which are filled with detail and focus in on the faces of the characters and the places they’re in. This creates a kind of visual narrative for the reader. We're not meant just to read or hear it. We're meant to see it, too.
It would be easy to look at all these pictures and imagine that this is a totally magical world, but Selznick adds a healthy dose of reality, just to keep things exciting. Selznick cleverly switches things up every once in a while, when we’ve grown too complacent with the whole “this isn’t real!” thing. He inserts a photograph or a still frame from a movie so we see that this magical little story does have a lot of realness to it. It takes place in a real time, in a real place, with a number of real characters.
As readers, we see both the sketch of the moon that the automaton draws and we see a still frame from the movie. So all these illustrations put us into a magical world… and then remind us that the real world is magical, too. Bonus!