This book defies categories. It won a Caldecott medal (awarded to distinguished picture books), but boasts a solid girth on the shelf at over 500 pages. The story has the flow of a children’s novel, but the narration breaks off at particularly descriptive or intense moments and is replaced with beautiful black and white illustrations. This book embodies the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.
The story itself is engaging and compelling. We grow to love the young orphan Hugo Cabret, with his knack for fixing machinery and his obsession with a broken down automaton – a strange mechanical man who (when repaired) might write Hugo a message that he hopes will unlock mysteries in his past. The motif of clocks and mechanisms wends its way through this delightful and unusual story.
Behind the near magical elements of this story, we find children’s historical fiction at its best. The setting is Paris during the 1930s. We interact with the fantastical world of early French film – its shining moments, its luminous directors – without feeling “taught” or scholarly at all. Hugo’s story is gripping, the blend of text and illustration is original, and the historical setting blends into the background, giving a rootedness to a tale as unexpected as a fantasy.