Unless you're a book nerd like me, you probably don't remember it being controversial that The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, but believe you me, it was--usually the illustration award goes to a picture book, leaving the Newbery for middle-grade reading*. Hugo is a hybrid of both, 158 pictures and 26,159 words, not quite a novel and not quite a graphic novel. It is, really--and this is wholly intentional on Selznick's part--closest to a silent film, with extra-loquacious intertitles. The art is all black-and-white, pencil on watercolor paper, with the same otherworldly, dim-yet-glowing quality of those first movies. And it's also pretty darn fantastic. I'm embarrassed I didn't read it until the month the movie came out (directed by Martin Scorsese, in 3D. Seems an odd choice to me, but the boy points out it's the 21st-century equivalent of the experimental techniques the pioneers of cinema used.).
Hugo Cabret lives alone in the recesses of the Montparnasse train station in the early 1930s. His loving father, a clockmaker who taught him the intricacies of cogs and gears, died in a fire, leaving Hugo with his alcoholic uncle, guardian of the Montparnasse clocks. But his uncle has disappeared, and so Hugo keeps the time himself, surviving by pilfering from the station's cafe. His only companion now is an automaton--a magician's prop in the from of a mechanical man seated at a desk with a pen in his hand. Discovered and repaired by Hugo's father, then damaged in the same fire that killed him, the construct is Hugo's last connection to his previous existence, and he's determined to fix it. To do so, he periodically steals parts from a toy shop in the station. When the toymaker catches him, though, it starts a chain of events that ends up with the amazing early fantasy films of Georges Méliès. Which Netflix doesn't have, even A Trip to the Moon. Argh! Time to hit up Photoplay, the actual brick-and-mortar video store in Greenpoint.
*FUN FACT: the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, though American, are both named for Englishmen (John, an 18th-century publisher; Randolph, a 19th-century illustrator).
FURTHER FUN FACT THAT I JUST LEARNED: the U.K. equivalents are the Carnegie Medal (lit) and the Kate Greenaway Medal (illustration).