Sentences and Sketches

“I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie.”

With an intricately woven story of both pictures and words, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” draws you into an immersive experience of a beautiful tale of hope, love and endurance that remains long after you turn the last page and set the book down.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick is not your conventional book; it is neither a text-filled book nor a graphic novel. Even calling it a picture book would be inaccurate, since that seems to imply a dependence of pictures and words, where one must represent the other. This book, on the other hand, uses both mediums — at times sketches, at times words — to unfold its story through a kind of sequential art and intimately sparse words. Perhaps if I really had to describe it, I might call it a book that translates to its reader the sensory experience of a movie within its pages. A book that holds a movie.

The first time I read this book, I was 11 years old and quite terrified at the daunting size of it. And yet when I sat down and opened the book, snuggled between blanket covers, a cup of half-cold chocolate milk precariously balanced on the bed and the open window that let in cool air and cacophonous sounds from outside, fascination pulled me into a story that was as startling in its immediacy as it was in its ability to calm, still and slow things down.

At first, with an unsurprising childlike curiosity, I rapidly turned pages in a frantic attempt to understand what was going on. At some point in the tantalizing narrative however, maybe a couple sentences in, or maybe 20 sketches later, I paused. That was when the realization struck me — this was a strange object that I was holding in my hands. And in the rule that defined my childhood and hopefully defines my life even now, strange things must be looked at carefully. Slowly, closely and attentively; I couldn’t miss anything. So, I went back to the start, and read the introduction all over again. The voice was whimsical, demanding yet delicate at the same time.

“I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On a screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.”

Follow him, the voice urged me, and follow him I did. And what an adventure that was.

When you open to the first page of the book, you will find a sketch of the moon, enclosed in a tiny rectangular frame. When you turn the page, you will notice that the frame is slightly bigger and see little specks surrounding the moon. You know somehow that they are stars. You turn the page again, and the next display takes your breath away. It’s Paris in the 1930s: alive, breathing and working its magic, stretching out before your eyes. There are small houses, quaint bridges, narrow streets and of course, the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Selznick draws his sketches in a way that mimics the movement of a camera, from the way it pans across scenes or changes focus or zooms in on a particular detail.

The frame widens, changes and finally narrows down on a little boy: He looks unkempt, hesitant but also intent. He has no parents or money or friends; only the clothes on his back, a special skill with clocks and an automaton his father left him. Yet he holds a kind of hope in his lanky frame and has a bright light in his eyes. This is Hugo Cabret, and you find that you are already attached to him.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is about the orphaned Hugo who lives secretly in the Parisian train station, fixing and maintaining the clocks ever since his uncle’s death. Hugo’s only keepsake from his father is a strange, broken automaton which Hugo is convinced, when fixed, will deliver a message from his father. Stealing mechanical parts from a toy shop in order to fix the machine, Hugo meets the owner of the shop and his goddaughter, Isabelle. Their two lives intersect in an extraordinary way as they forge a friendship amid unexpected connections and discoveries that lead them to the illusionist and filmmaker, Georges Méliès.

The innovative and gripping visual style that Selznick uses to tell his story echoes his tale about the tragedy and revival of the real-life Georges Méliès, creator of the famous movie “A Trip to the Moon,” and it traces his journey from a magician to an extraordinary filmmaker to the owner of a toy shop until the book culminates in a final recognition and celebration of this exceptional man.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is a journey in many ways. It is a journey of Hugo’s, the boy who learns to love and trust, and of Georges Méliès, the man who overcomes despair and loss and about how the two learn to move beyond a stagnant past. It is a journey about the constant shifts between the comfort of a book and the novelty of cinema; it is a journey about learning to look closely, and looking again. But most of all, it is about the power of hope and the journey between dreaming and making those dreams real.

As Georges Méliès said at a final tribute to his work, “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. You are the true dreamers.”

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu .

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