Thursday, November 17, 2011

The ReInvention of a Picture Book

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
As a teacher of dyslexic students, I appreciate just how hard it is to find a book for a low-skilled older student. Virtually impossible. You don't want to insult the student, but you don't want to frustrate them with a book that is entirely too difficult. And what about your emergent readers? Older students who are just learning to read. Do you give them picture books and chapter books? What if you had a really beautiful story, full of gorgeous illustrations disguised as usual middle reader book (except much bigger and much heavier)? Brian Selznick created a masterpiece with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but when he did, I am sure he didn't realize he was creating a bridge for emergent readers into the world of book lovers.
Hugo was orphaned twice. When his father was killed in a fire in his workshop working on a device Hugo wanted him to fix, Hugo was sent to live with his uncle. Hugo's uncle lived in the train station and was responsible for winding all the clocks twice a day. It wasn't the hardest job in the world, but it took a lot of responsibility so the clocks didn't fall behind and break down. When Hugo's uncle disappears, Hugo takes over the clocks and keeps up the ruse his uncle is still there because he has no other place to go.
Unable to cash his uncle's checks, Hugo is forced to steal his food. He only steals out of necessity, except for toys. Hugo can't resist the toy booth run by the old man, but when he is caught stealing a toy mouse, the old man forces him to fix it. He takes Hugo's notebook- the last thing Hugo has from his father that holds the secrets to fixing the device his father died trying to fix for Hugo- the automaton. Hugo salvaged the automaton from the building where his father was killed, but without the notebook, he will never get the figure to work. When the old man sees Hugo's ability to fix the toy, he puts him to work fixing toys in the shop. By day Hugo works in the shop, but night he works on the automaton. It is a busy life, but Hugo just wants his notebook back. When the old man's goddaughter promises to get it back for him, he doesn't realize the secrets they will uncover together. There is more to the old man than Hugo ever realized, but then again, the old man didn't know Hugo was an orphan living in the train station either.
The beauty of this book, besides the pages and pages of beautiful illustrations, was the ability of those illustrations to tell huge parts of the story. An emergent reader must look at a book and be completely overwhelmed by all those words. Pages and pages of words. So what if half the story was told by a series of illustrations that wordlessly told a beautiful story of a sad boy who finds people who care about him? I love this book for many reasons, but the biggest reason is that I can just see a student who is just starting to read being able to successfully wade through this book in all its bulk (500+ pages) and know they have read a book. Imagine the pride that would come from that student?
So I have to say, I think Selznick is a genius. He created a book that is not only beautiful, but one that can appeal to even the most low-skilled students. I think it is an important book for any children's library or classroom, especially for students with learning disabilities. The illustrations can emote with little effort and will provide tons of material for discussions. You can have students write the dialogue or describe the illustrations as an activity. If a student is creative, you can have them illustrate the portions of the book that aren't already illustrated. The opportunities are limitless.

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