This magical book for young adults is 533 pages, but I read it in one day; not only is it too compelling to put down, but much of the story is told by illustrations without text (including not only original work by the author but also authentic photographs and film stills). The book is based on the true story of Georges Melies, a pioneer in early cinema. Formerly a magician, he transferred his knowledge of sleight-of-hand and trompe l’oeil to the screen, earning him the title of “Cinemagician.” Just as Melies’s movies were innovations in silent film, the portions of the book told through art alone are laid out as if they could be the storyboards of silent movies. An interview with the author reveals that the book is meant in part as a tribute to French cinema: many of the scenes as well as the main character himself were inspired by various French movies, both old and new. I did not get those allusions but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.
The book tells the story of 12-year-old Hugo, an orphan who lives in a secret area of a Paris train station. He keeps all the clocks oiled and adjusted, a profession that runs in his family. He finds dropped money and sometimes steals food to survive.
There are a couple of central plot elements. One is Hugo’s possession of a mechanical man poised at a desk, apparently ready to write a message if brought back to working order. (In real life, Melies owned a collection of automata – or complicated wind-up figures – which presumably inspired some of his film fantasies.) Hugo’s father had found the robot in a museum attic before he perished in a fire in that attic while trying to fix it. Hugo later rescued the robot, and stole little mechanical parts from a train station toy store in an effort to complete the repairs. The store owner, a grumpy old man, knows Hugo has been stealing from him, but is intrigued by the boy and by his notebook of drawings of the automaton.
Another theme comes from the defining image of Melies’ ground-breaking science fiction movie of 1902, “A Trip to the Moon,” in which six astronomers fly to the moon in a bullet-shaped spaceship, landing in the eye of the Man in the Moon.
(The author provides a link on his web site that allows you to watch the movie itself, and/or the modern tribute in the video “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins. Get the links here. Hugo’s father told him about this image from his favorite movie, and after Hugo repairs the automaton, it is this very picture that the mechanical man draws!
Helping to solve the mystery of the mechanical man is the girl Isabelle who works in the train station toy store for her godfather.
Hugo and Isabelle struggle to figure out their own identities even as they seek to know more about the enigmatic beings around them. One night Hugo takes Isabelle to the top of the train station, in a secret place behind the glass clocks that overlook the city:
“Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I’m not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”
Hugo finds his own purpose. The diligence he applied to working on the automaton becomes a metaphor for him as an adult:
“I spent countless hours designing it. I made every gear myself, carefully cut every brass disk, and fashioned every last bit of machinery with my own hands.”
The book is charming and engaging, the artwork striking and evocative, and the subject matter stimulating. I actually learned a lot in the course of reading it (and by exploring the recommended websites afterwards). Highly recommended!
Published by Scholastic, 2007
Caldecott Medal (2008)
National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2007)
Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature (2008)
Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2009)
Flicker Tale Children’s Book Award (2009)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2009)
Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis Nominee for Kinderbuch (2009)
Iowa Children’s Choice Award (2010)
Boston Author’s Club Young Reader Award (2008)
NAIBA Book of the Year for Children’s Literature (2007)