Because Grad was so enthusiastic in a recent comment about the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, and because I was feeling in the mood to indulge a whim, I requested it from the library. It arrived pretty fast and then I read the book pretty fast. It was great!

I was surprised about how huge the book is, over 500 pages, but while I didn’t read it in one sitting, I did read it within a couple of hours. The story takes place in Paris in the 1930s. Hugo, a boy of about eleven, is an orphan. He lives in a tiny apartment hidden away in the walls of the train station. Hugo’s father was a clockmaker and when he died, Hugo’s Uncle whose tiny apartment Hugo is living in took him in. Hugo’s uncle was in charge of making sure all the clocks in the train station worked and ran on time. He taught Hugo how to take care of them and then proceeded to drink himself to death. Hugo has been taking care of the clocks by himself for several months in fear that he will be discovered and sent to an orphanage. He can’t cash his uncle’s paychecks (because all the clocks are maintained behind the station walls and because they are all still working, the station administration assumes it is the uncle doing his job and keeps paying him) he lives on scrounging lost change and theft.

Hugo’s father loved movies and was quite a dreamer. He had found in the attic of a museum where he did work, an old automaton, a mechanical man at a desk holding a pen. The automaton was old and broken and it became the dream of Hugo’s father and Hugo to someday repair it and find out what the mechanical man would write. But Hugo’s father died unexpectedly. The museum burned down and just when it seemed that all was lost, Hugo saw the atuomaton in the rubble and rescued it. Hugo decides that it is now up to him to repair it and, he is certain that the message the automaton will write once it works will be a message from his father.

Of course things don’t go smoothly but Hugo find friends in unexpected places and the story takes a turn centered around the automaton and the movies, that I didn’t see coming. And, after what sometimes seems a desperate and sad story, it has a satisfying happy ending.

I wouldn’t call this a true graphic novel, it has beautiful pencil drawings with marvelous detail, but the words and the pictures are separate. They never merge like the comic book look of graphic novels. But the novel isn’t simply an illustrated story either. There will be several pages of text and then there will be a number of drawings. The drawings do not illustrate the story, they tell the story and they stand in for the text. So, at one point where Hugo is browsing in a bookstore instead of describing with words what is going on, there is a series of drawings of Hugo browsing, then reaching up to pull a book off the shelf, and then you turn the page and the text picks up the thread. It is well done and very enjoyable.

The book apparently made a big splash when it was first published. it has won a Caldecott medal and other honors. There is also a wonderful website about the book. And, for a taste of the beautiful artwork, there is a flash slideshow of the opening sequence of the book. If you have never tried a graphic novel before, this one might be a good place to start, a way to ease yourself into the genre.