The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Book Summary & Genre

Instructor: Kathleen Laib

I have been a teacher for 10 years with eight of those years teaching 4th grade. I have a master's of Ed and an ELL Endorsement.

'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' by Brian Selznick is a captivating story presented in both writing and pictures. Let's explore this touching story of an orphan boy living and working in a French train station.

An Historical Fiction

Imagine losing everything you have ever known--your family, home, and friends. The only connection to your past is a broken machine, which you are sure holds a secret message from your father that will help guide you back to a normal life. This is the story of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

This is an historical fiction, which means that even though it's made-up, it's based on a real time and place in history. This story is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, when Paris was the epicenter of technology and film, and it tells the fictional story of a young boy named Hugo. It also features a real historical figure, Georges Méliès, a pioneer of filmmaking at the time.


Hugo's father was killed in a fire. He goes to live with his uncle, who takes care of the clocks in the train station. One day, Hugo's uncle disappears, and Hugo is left to take care of the clocks and himself, with no money or friends to help. Before his father's death, Hugo and his father were restoring an automaton - a wind-up mechanical man - that his father had found in the museum where he worked. Hugo thought both his father and the automaton were lost in the museum fire, but then he found the automaton in the ashes.

An example of an automaton, a wind-up mechanical man
An example of an automaton.

Hugo has his father's notebook to help him repair the automaton, and he's hoping the machine will carry a message from his father.

Meeting Georges

One day, while trying to steal the pieces he needs to repair the automaton from a toymaker in the train station, he is caught and meets Georges Méliès, the owner of the toy booth. Georges takes Hugo's notebook and refuses to give it back.

Hugo returns later and tries unsuccessfully to get the notebook back. But Georges does offer Hugo a job, and Hugo accepts in the hopes that someday he may be able to get the notebook back. While working for Georges, Hugo meets Isabel, Georges' goddaughter.

Georges immediately recognizes Hugo's skills with clockwork toys, and Georges and Hugo become friends. While Georges doesn't return the notebook, he teaches Hugo the art of the trade, and with time, Hugo starts to realize how pieces from the toys will fit perfectly within the automaton. And so it turns out he doesn't need the notebook at all.

Winding the Automaton

Eventually, Hugo finishes the automaton and notices a key around Isabel's neck that will wind it. He uses his magician skills to steal Isabel's key.

Isabel follows Hugo back to his apartment in the walls of the train station. She watches as Hugo uses the key to start the automaton, hoping to learn its secret. The automaton starts to draw, and Hugo recognizes a drawing of a scene from his dad's favorite movie, A Trip to the Moon. As the automaton finishes, both Isabel and Hugo are shocked when the automaton signs a name to the drawing: Georges Méliès.

The automaton draws a scene from A Trip to the Moon.
The Secret Message

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