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The Invention of Hugo Cabret A Novel Brian Selznick Scholastic Press: 544 pp., $22.99

February 18, 2007|Sonja Bolle | Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor and reviews children's books for Newsday.

SHOW, don't tell, they always say in filmmaking. Children's book authors have long experimented with showing rather than telling in wordless picture books, the most successful recent example being 2007 Caldecott Medal winner "Flotsam," by David Wiesner. Brian Selznick explores the line between telling and showing in an entirely new way in his captivating book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

Billed as "a novel in words and pictures" for 9- to 12-year-olds, "Hugo Cabret" employs what can easily be called cinematic techniques, melding text and illustration to tell the story of an orphan who lives by his wits in a Paris train station in the 1930s. The book opens with a short introduction setting the scene: "I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise...."

On the very next page there is a "tight shot" of the moon -- a small, black and silvery-white illustration surrounded by a vast black border. On the following pages, the "camera" pulls back to reveal the city of Paris (always keeping the black border, akin to a cinematic letterbox format), then gradually zooms in on a busy railway station and finds a boy looking warily over his shoulder. We follow the boy out of the great hall and down a corridor; we see him disappear into a grate, then into a secret passage that allows him to peer out from behind a station clock at a merchant leaning sleepily on the counter of his booth.

Only on Page 46 does the text pick up again, quite seamlessly: "From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything. He rubbed his fingers nervously against the small notebook in his pocket and told himself to be patient." The reader feels instinctively that the transition from pictures to words is necessary, as "he told himself to be patient" is not something that can be conveyed in images. As the mystery in the book deepens and the plot becomes more complicated, the transitions succeed each other precisely, like the clockwork machinery that forms a central theme in the story.

A consciousness of the storytelling style is one of the great pleasures of reading this book. In the best of the wordless picture books (Istvan Banyai's "Zoom," Barbara Lehman's "The Red Book," Peter Collington's "A Small Miracle"), the reader forgets about the manner of the storytelling; if the book is successful, the reader enters the world of the story and doesn't look back. Selznick, however, straddles the line between visual and textual storytelling, focusing the reader's attention on technique because he keeps flipping back and forth. The reader even catches him out in imperfect decisions ("Hey! The picture already showed me that! Did he think I wouldn't notice?"), but it's not a disappointment: It's a sign of engagement, a measure of the book's -- to borrow a term from yet another medium -- interactivity.

A note to parents trying to encourage reluctant readers to make the jump from large-type, short-chapter books to denser, more intimidating novels: Let Brian Selznick help. The design of "Hugo Cabret" is ideal for crossing that threshold to more sophisticated books. The volume is hefty -- more than 500 pages -- but large stretches are occupied by dramatic illustration. Yet there is no confusing this art with picture books meant for -- horrors! -- little kids. This is definitely a big-kid book; 12-year-old Hugo looks like a pretty tough customer.

Selznick is best known as an illustrator paired with celebrated authors Pam Munoz Ryan ("When Marian Sang," "Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride") and Andrew Clements ("Frindle," "Lunch Money"). In his own books, he has explored childhood obsessions: "The Houdini Box" (1991) is about a kid determined to learn the famous magician's tricks, and "The Boy of a Thousand Faces" (2000) identifies with horror movie star Lon Chaney. "Hugo Cabret" brings together all of Selznick's popular-culture passions in a much deeper and more complex story.

Hugo's obsession with trying to reconstruct a mechanical man that is his only link to his father brings him into contact with the old man whose mechanical toys mysteriously provide Hugo with the parts he needs. Selznick has used the real-life biography of early French filmmaker Georges Melies, a magician and showman who used the new medium of film to amaze and astonish, to bring dreams to life, but who fell into obscurity and indeed ran a toy shop until he was rediscovered by students of film.

It's not necessary to know cinema history to appreciate the story, but the references are there for knowing readers. There are film stills that show why early movie audiences screamed and fainted in terror. There is effective poetic use of the myth of Prometheus, and even a meditation on finding one's purpose in life. And then, just when you thought you would be swamped by words, there is a fabulous chase scene. What more could any reader, or moviegoer, want? *

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