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Top 100 Children’s Novels #39: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

#39 The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007)
50 points

Perfect and artful blending of prose and illustration. – Dee Sypherd

No book like it. It reinvents storytelling. It plays with our notion of “the book.” It takes great advantage of the physical nature of “the book.” In the end, the story celebrates many things, including that very book we hold in our hands. – Aaron Zenz

A picture book on the Top 100 Children’s Novels list?  Well, what would you have of me?  The trick to Cabret is that this book fits no single designation.  Folks nominated it for the Top 100 Picture Books List (it didn’t make the cut) and for this list as well.  Spoiler Alert: It is the only Caldecott Award winning book you will find on this list.  Or is that not too surprising after all?

The plot from my review reads, “Without Hugo Cabret, none of the clocks in the magnificent Paris train station he lives in would work. Though he’s only a kid, Hugo tends to the clocks every day. But there’s something even more important in the boy’s life than gigantic mechanics. Hugo owns a complex automaton, once his father’s, that was damaged in a fire and it is his life’s goal to make the little machine work again. To do so, he’s been stealing small toys from an old shopkeeper in the station. One day the man catches Hugo in the act, and suddenly the two are thrown together. Coincidences, puzzles, lost keys, and a mystery from the past combine in this complex tale of old and new. The story is told with pictures that act out the action and then several pages of text that describe the plot elements. The final effect is like watching a puzzle work itself into clarity.”

The wordy Roderick McGillis piece “Fantasy as Epanalepsis: ‘An Anticipation of Retrospection’” (found in the Dec. 2008 edition of Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature) made a rather striking point about the book.  He says that, “The story may not be a fantasy, but it is surely about fantasy” at one point and “His last name suggests ‘cabaret’, the site of a mixture of performances.” in another.  Later he points out that, “The ‘invention’ of Hugo Cabret is both the discovery and fashioning of the character and, in turn, the character’s discovery and invention.”

Horn Book said of it, “While the bookmaking is spectacular, and the binding secure but generous enough to allow the pictures to flow easily across the gutter, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is foremost good storytelling, with a sincerity and verbal ease reminiscent of Andrew Clements (a frequent Selznick collaborator) and themes of secrets, dreams, and invention that play lightly but resonantly throughout.”

Said Library Journal, “Toss in a wild jumble of references and plot lines, a mean old man, a young girl, toys, secrets, and a fabulous train station, and you have the makings of a novel destined to enchant.”

The New York Times said, “It is wonderful. Take that overused word literally: ‘Hugo Cabret’ evokes wonder. At more than 500 pages, its proportions seem Potteresque, yet it makes for quick reading because Selznick’s amazing drawings take up most of the book. While they may lack the virtuosity of Chris Van Allsburg’s work or David Wiesner’s, their slight roughness gives them urgency.

If the Little Women covers were a bit extreme in terms of the sheer number of them, Cabret makes up for it. I couldn’t find anything but the very first cover. What I found instead was Brian discussing the book in an interview:

And, naturally, there was that recent film:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Must. Read. This. Book.


  1. […] basis of artistic merit. This year’s panel is composed of Caldecott medalist and two-time winner Brian Selznick; SLJ blogger, author, and children’s librarian Elizabeth Bird; and Steve Heller, longtime art […]