I must say that I was a little more than skeptical when I heard that The Invention of Hugo Cabret had won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for 2008. How could a 500+ page book qualify for this honor that is awarded for the most distinguished "picture book" of the year? I am NOT skeptical NOW after reading Hugo. What a gem that is surely to go down as a favorite for generations to come.
From the opening page's picture of a moon and then the sketches of Paris at night, the reader is entranced by the charcoal drawings and words have yet to appear. We learn that Hugo has taken over keeping the clocks wound and synchronized at a train station in Paris after his uncle disappears. He lives in a small room, also occupied by an automaton that was rescued from the ashes of a fire that killed Hugo's father. Hugo forages for food since he has no way to cash his uncle's paychecks. Our empathy builds for this young orphan as he tries to do the right thing, but who is eventually caught stealing a small wind up mouse from a toy store in the station. He needs some parts to fix the automaton because he knows from his father's notebook that the mechanical creature holds a deep secret. The shop owner takes his notebook and holds it as ransom. Hugo will need to work in the shop to try to make amends.
Enter Penelope, the shopkeeper's godchild. She befriends Hugo and the two embark on the journey that will lead them to discover the secret. Through magic, a bit of cinematic history, and the exploration of days gone by, the two friends eventually share their deepest thoughts and feelings about their lives with each other. Not all of them are happy.
This book can be read on many levels. It is an insight into cinema and the contributions of Georges Méliés, the tragedy of young people left to their own devices for survival, and some real history as illustrated by the train crash at the Gare Montparnasse. As the Caldecott committee stated, "Neither words nor pictures alone tell this story." Pick it up and you will be lost and enchanted for a good couple of hours.
For background and history of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, click here.