Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 19, 2010

Seeing in black and white

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick (2007), Scholastic, 525 pp.

There is often something very flat and plastic about graphic novels, with their bright colors and busy frames. But the best give good art as well as good story. Hugo Cabret belongs up there with Satrapi’s Persepolis and Spiegelman’s Maus. Selznick’s drawings, all done with an incredibly soft and fuzzy pencil, give us a 1930s Paris reminiscent of old movies. Which is appropriate, given the author’s plot.

Hugo, orphaned at twelve, winds the clocks throughout a Paris train station, but no one knows that he’s doing it. He gets mixed up with a girl and her godfather, and before long we are in the world of magicians, automatons, and lost silent film masterpieces.

The book, a combination of narrative and graphic novel, takes us deep inside the train station and into Hugo’s complex life. Some of the graphic sequences are cinematic as they follow his movements through the day–there’s even a chase sequence through the station.

Selznick also references famous films, through his words and drawings, starting with the very first line of the Introduction:  “The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris” [Sous les toits de Paris, 1930, René Clair].

The head shots are my favorite–of Hugo, of his friend Isabelle (with her Louise Brooks bob), of Papa Georges, even of the automaton at the center of the mystery. These are lovely soft portrayals of emotions that go beyond the surface. You really can look deep into the characters’ eyes here.

This is a story about looking and seeing–in the dark, from secret peep holes, with one eye closed (or eye-patched), or through a shawl studded with stars and moons. We are all cameras, silently filming and editing all we see. But how many of us take the films our minds make everyday and turn them into something for others to watch? Selznick’s book is an appreciation of the world that filmmakers have given us, and it’s also his own film-on-paper gift to his readers.


  1. I just picked this up yesterday. I was very excited. I will be reading it on the train to San Juan Capistrano. Thank you for all the wonderful suggestions.

    I’m excited about reading again.

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