Movie montage technique of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznik

So much for the requirement that picture books have 32 pages. Brian Selznick told his children’s story The Invention of Hugo Cabret in 530 pages — and it won the 2008 Caldecott Medal.

You know? The Caldecott Medal !! The American Library Association (ALA) awards it each year to the artist of what the association decides is the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret has reviewers saying that Hugo has invented at least the new format of the 21st century picture book and maybe that of novels and books generally.

Have they never seen a graphic novel? Anyway the book started a conversation, which of course is the right thing for an intellectual property to do.

Selznick’s book also was named a finalist for the National Book Award and was included on the The New York Times list of the Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year. It’s already been optioned for the movies. Martin Scorcese wants to direct.

I leafed through it the other day at a nearby Barnes and Noble.  I have not read the book. When I do, I’ll talk about it here.

I’ll give you my reaction anyway:
It’s a movie between hardcovers. A storyboard in a book. The pictures are rendered in pencil with beautifully orchestrated darks and lights, and they stream at us like the montages in an Eisenstein  filmexcept occasionally they’re interrupted by pages of text and some still photos from some very early silent movies.

Weighing as much as a hardcover edition of War and Peace, the book bustled with set pieces, props and gizmos. I thought, “This is all too gadgetty and complicated for a small child to understand, much less enjoy.

“Why, if I want a ‘storyboard for a child’, I’ll go for Peter Spier’s 1978 Caldecott Medal winner Noah’s Ark. Now there’s visual storytelling perfection. It is huge but simple and human-scale — and it busts the 32 page rule, too, I continued the conversation with myself as I stood in front of the store-shelves of Caldecott-winners.

Hugo Cabret, the protagonist of Brian Selznik’s Caldecott winner But even then as I thought of Noah’s Ark, the fascination of The Invention of Hugo Cabret was starting to settle in. By the next day it had taken hold — and I hadn’t even read the book.

How did this happen? Well it is hard to deny the assured draftsmanship, clarity and gray-scale splendor of Selznik’s illustrations. They use the kinesthetic kick of the movies and the black and white magic of the silent movies to tell a story.

A character in the story is one of the world’s earliest film-makers, so it’s quite appropriate.

There are poignant nonfiction truths behind this fiction of a boy who lives in a Paris train station at the turn of the century — and there meets a toymaker who
turns out to be a real life historical person, George Melies.

The moon from the 1902 film, “A Trip to the Moon” one of the hundreds of fantasy films made by George Melies Melies was a one-time stage magician, tinkerer and film-maker who made the movie, A Trip to the Moon that he based on two novels of the day (one by Jules Verne and the other by H.G. Wells.)

His little “science fiction” fantasy reel became a hit in 1902 — long before Charlie Chaplin or Abel Gance ever thought of making movies.

Hard times fell on the elderly Melies, who wound up working in a toy booth at a Paris train station to feed himself.  His collection of life-sized mechanical robot toys (which also figure into Selznick’s story) was given to a museum that neglected and finally trashed it. His films, which he had sold off many years before, were melted down to make a material for shoe and boot heels.

Talk about a commentary on the impermanence of art…

Will children find a rapport with such ideas? We’ll see.

In the meantime see a NY Times review by John Schwartz.

The ALA’s Award announcement page has more and covers the finalists, those Caldecott Honor books:
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad illustrated by Kadir Nelson, written by Ellen Levine (Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic.) First the Egg, written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter.) The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, written and illustrated by Peter Sís (Farrar/Frances Foster) and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, written and illustrated (with cartoon/photo collages)  by Mo Willems (Hyperion.)

The website for Selznik’s book is fun and full of links, including one that lets you see The Trip to the Moon and another that takes you to the Expanded Books website for a lovely short  video interview with Selznik.

“Reads Like a Book, Looks Like a Film” declares the headline in a New York Times piece on Selznik by Motoko Rich. The feature begins, “Brian Selznick, the author and illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret uses the word ‘obsessed’ a lot.”

It goes on to report how Selznick, as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design once skipped a visiting lecture by Maurice Sendak — he was that ambivalent about a career as a ‘children’s book illustrator.’

A School Library Journal article by Joan Oleck surveys the (mostly enthusiastic) reactions of librarians to the award announcement, while Christine V. Baird of the Newhouse News Service profiles the creator .

In a Scripps Howard News Service story by Karen Mcpherson Selznick recalls how he “took out big chunks of text and replaced them with narrative [illustrated] sequences.”

Graphic novel, as I said.

Brian Selznik illustration from his “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”

So there you have it — a book report from someone who’s not read the book.  (Why do I feel like I’m back in school?)

Does The Invention of Hugo Cabret really change things on the kid lit scene? Who knows? In the meantime, let’s have fun talking about it — and looking at Selznik’s wonderfully realized pictures.

Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog and offers an ongoing online course in drawing and painting for children’s book illustration, “Make Your Splashes; Make Your Marks!”