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Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret as a mentor text for deep reading in ELT

  • Nord University (main affiliation) and OsloMet University

Abstract and Figures

The format of the novel is evolving, as are the literacy needs of our students. Visual literacy, literary literacy, critical literacy and information literacy are competences that must be trained across the curriculum. Yet, it is undoubtedly the ELT classroom that offers most opportunities for this training due to the enormous diversity of English-language texts. Now, in the 21st century, we can be sure that the majority of readers of narrative texts in English are not native speakers of English. While readers across the world are increasingly characterised by transculturality and hybrid cultural identity, literary texts are increasingly diverging from the monomodal novel format: "Literature and the other arts now consist of 'texts'. […] 'Text', however, suggests something woven, textured, connected to strands that may lead beyond the single text to contexts, intertexts, and subtexts" (McGillis 2011, 349). The more complex, the more interwoven these multimodal texts are, the more opportunities arise in the classroom for talking around texts – leading to potential acquisition of multiple literacies through cognitively demanding, contemplative deep-reading processes.
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Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 29.1 (March 2018): 41-53.
Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret
as a Mentor Text for Deep Reading in ELT
The format of the novel is evolving, as are the literacy needs of our students. Visual
literacy, literary literacy, critical literacy and information literacy are competences
that must be trained across the curriculum. Yet, it is undoubtedly the ELT classroom
that offers most opportunities for this training due to the enormous diversity of Eng-
lish-language texts. Now, in the 21st century, we can be sure that the majority of read-
ers of narrative texts in English are not native speakers of English. While readers
across the world are increasingly characterised by transculturality and hybrid cultural
identity, literary texts are increasingly diverging from the monomodal novel format:
"Literature and the other arts now consist of 'texts.' […] 'Text,' however, suggests
something woven, textured, connected to strands that may lead beyond the single text
to contexts, intertexts, and subtexts" (McGillis 2011, 349). The more complex, the
more interwoven these multimodal texts are, the more opportunities arise in the class-
room for talking around texts leading to potential acquisition of multiple literacies
through cognitively demanding, contemplative deep-reading processes.
Deep reading, considered to be "slow and meditative" (Birkerts 1994, 146), goes
beyond literary competence such as recognising stylistic devices to include,
according to the contemporary understanding of teaching with texts, literary, visual
and critical literacy:
By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehen-
sion and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical
analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these
processes; the young brain needs years to develop them. (Wolf and Barzillai 2009, 32)
Deep reading, which can be developed in the classroom as a community literacy
event, cannot be entirely separated from the sociocultural context of the event, just as
the text itself reflects (and possibly attempts to rebel against) the sociocultural context
in which it was created. We use our real-life experience to understand the narrative,
while the storyworld itself helps illuminate and explain the real world. The engage-
ment in deep reading is thus a two-way process: from life-to-text and from text-to-
life. A literacy event in the classroom is social practice and process, and both cultural
identity and ideology play important roles: "Today we accept that reading is an active
process of making meaning and negotiating ideology within a social and cultural
context" (Hutcheon 2015, 136). Due to this emphasis on negotiation, at least for edu-
cational purposes, the notion of teaching literacy in a collaborative sense, rather than
teaching literature in a knowledge-transmission sense, is centrally important: "In
teaching literacy, we are assuming a purpose or reason for reading; we are looking at
reading as communication and at what readers will do with what they read or what
writers do with writing" (Paran and Wallace 2016, 442).
In mother tongue education, this understanding of working with texts as commu-
nal interpretation and reader response is increasingly accepted in classrooms. Howev-
er, in ELT, there still seems to be a dominant belief among teachers and their students
that there are absolute meanings in literary texts that must be taught: "In EFL text-
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books worldwide, the default position continues to be that of the text as 'container' of
meaning and of the reader as a 'comprehender' who extracts meaning from texts"
(Paran and Wallace 2016, 447). It can be argued that for ELT the training of deep
reading is particularly important. On the one hand, visualising while reading is most
difficult to attain but also most desirable in a second language: "The ability to turn
words into mental images distinguishes deep reading with understanding and pleasure
from merely decoding words on the page" (Bland 2013, 26). On the other hand, the
acquisition of information literacy is most essential in English, the lingua franca of
the Web:
In the last few years, we've moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven
by an information glut. […] The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant grow-
ing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need
help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need. (Gaiman 2013, n.p.)
Comprehension questions are never the main point of a literacy event with a liter-
ary text, for unlike the reading of a school timetable or travel directions, understand-
ing a literary text means taking part in a dynamic dialogue with the text. The need for
a wider understanding of literacy is ever more apparent in the 21st century, with the
hugely influential role of unsubstantiated claims often made through texts on social
media, and the dangers of "a culture where a few claims on Twitter can have the same
credibility as a library full of research" (Coughlan 2017). Consequently many educa-
tors, particularly among those responsible for teacher education of ELT with young
learners and teenagers, refer to multiple literacies not only learning to read and write
(functional literacy), but also learning to use the Web wisely and skilfully for infor-
mation (information literacy), learning to read the aesthetic nature of a literary text
(literary literacy), learning to read all texts critically and understanding their manipu-
lative power (critical literacy) and also reading pictures for information both deeply
and critically (visual literacy). The aim of teaching multiple literacies is reading at a
deeper level. The preoccupation, at the time of writing, with the Trumpian vision of
'alternative facts' highlights the vital importance of both interpretation and compre-
hension interpreting the choices made in verbal and visual text is essential for criti-
cal literacy. Particularly literary texts prompt the reader to consider deeply language
formulations, connotations in verbal and pictorial text and cultural meanings.
The Graphic Novel as a Multimodal Format
Multiple literacy events are characterised by their highly collaborative and participa-
tory nature, usually involving multimodal texts on page or screen. Discovering all of
the details in the pictures requires careful re-readings, comparison of findings and
associations, and revisiting the text for discrepancies and contradictions. Clearly this
is rather easier to achieve with the frozen images of graphic novels and picturebooks
than with the swiftly moving pictures of film. For the deep reading processes that are
the subject of this article, the print medium is more able to offer mentor texts for slow
and deliberate cognitive processes than digital media:
Until sufficient proof enlarges the discussion, we believe that nothing replaces the
unique contributions of print literacy for the development of the full panoply of the
slower, constructive, cognitive processes that invite children to create their own whole
worlds in what Proust called the "reading sanctuary." (Wolf and Barzillai 2009, 36)
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Although a graphic novel is a multimodal text in print medium, it can nonetheless
connect the acquisition of literacies with the experience of digital natives, who of
course are used to reading pictorial text alongside verbal text on the Web. Moreover
graphic novels, once their complexities have been understood, can make reading a
social event, just as comics do for younger children. Graphic novels can also make
reading a pleasure, particularly for reluctant readers generally the larger proportion
of teen readers in ELT, as well as rather too many student teachers. Confident readers,
on the other hand, may need to experience and discover the artistry of an excellent
graphic novel, before being motivated to practise deep reading with this format. For in
many countries, including Germany, it is widely believed that as children develop
their literacy skills "sophistication in readers is demonstrated by reading words alone
no longer accompanied by any images" (Aleixo and Norris 2010, 72). Due to the
questionable content of many comics and graphic novels (not to mention novels and
films), it is important to disassociate the format of graphic novels from the subject
matter. However, when selecting a graphic novel for deep reading in an educational
context, both format and content should be considered in an ELT context they are
both relevant for talking around texts. Oziewicz considers "the ability to distinguish
genre from medium and format empowers young readers to better process new texts
they encounter. On a more cognitively advanced level, it hones their critical literacy
skills for identifying what the text seeks to achieve" (2018, in press). According to
Oziewicz's definition, the graphic novel is a format, not a genre: "The format is the
vehicle of the story's delivery, independent of content and type of narrative, which are
described by the term genre" (2018, in press). Thus genre can be an adventure story,
biography, a horror story and so forth, all of which exist as graphic novels.
Reader Response and Cognitive Criticism
The open nature of multimodal texts in the medium of print, beginning for young
learners usually with high-quality picturebooks, means they provide an excellent
opportunity for training readers in creative response and multiple literacies towards
deep reading: "Being able to read is not the same as reading, which we see from nu-
merous alarming reports from countries with high levels of literacy, but rapidly de-
creasing levels of reading" (Nikolajeva 2014, 1). Multimodal texts can mentor the
community of readers to co-author the text, in that they almost force a creative-
literary response. For graphic novels and picturebooks always feature gaps the dis-
crepancies between pictorial text and verbal text as well as the interaction of pictures
and words, which is re-created in the head of the reader. This allows not only an ap-
prenticeship, or mentoring, in how to read a literary text, it also offers the maximum
opportunities for talk around the text, or booktalk, defined as "co-operative talk in
which a community of readers makes discoveries far beyond anything they could
have found on their own" (Chambers 2011, 164).
Literary cognitive criticism, an approach that studies the effects of literature in
education, claims literature as a powerful instrument of human thought, serving to
expand cognitive abilities. Cognitive criticism is interested in all aspects of cognition
and young people's engagement with literary texts, including emotion, ethics,
empathy and knowledge of the world, ideology and social justice issues. Deep reading
is important for intellectual, emotional, ethical and social development. For fiction
offers vicarious ethical experience when it "puts its characters in situations where
ethical issues are inescapable, and moreover, in fiction these issues can be amplified
and become more tangible" (Nikolajeva 2014, 178). Thus the process of deep reading
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frequently involves encouraging the community of readers to contemplate an ethical
issue in empathy with a protagonist rather than the teaching of a moral lesson
through the text.
The theory of literary cognitive criticism makes use of recent advances in neuro-
science to move decidedly beyond reader response: "while reader-response theories
deal with how readers interact or transact with fiction, cognitive criticism also encom-
passes the question of why this interaction/transaction is possible" (Nikolajeva 2014,
8, emphasis in the original). While deep reading for empathetic understanding can be
carefully trained with well-selected multimodal texts in the medium of print, this
training will in the long run also be highly useful for supporting critical literacy with
the more transient, possibly more motivating yet for most students more distracting
digital media:
The fluid, multimodal nature of digital information enables online readers to become
immersed in a subject, both visually and verbally. Even as this presentation of material
in several different modes provides the reader with multiple points of entry into a sub-
ject, it also opens the door to great distraction. It further requires that the reader under-
stand how to evaluate visual information and make meaning in and across several dif-
ferent modalities. (Wolf and Barzillai 2009, 35)
Reader response and deep reading centre on learners and their cognitive processes
as much as on the literary text. The tendency in education, whether in first language
or second language classrooms, to teach and explain literature to inexperienced read-
ers rather than to allow them to empathetically and critically interact and transact with
a narrative suited to their level is entirely counterproductive to the rich cognitive
development literature can afford. Stories support the development of empathy, as
narrative "spreads prosocial values, the likeliest to appeal to both tellers and listeners.
It develops our capacity to see from different perspectives, and this capacity in turn
both arises from and aids the evolution of cooperation and the growth of human men-
tal flexibility" (Boyd 2009, 176). Sharing stories is undoubtedly the oldest form of
teaching, one at which the human species became particularly adept: "There have
been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that
did not tell stories" (Le Guin 1985, 31).
Fortunately the tendency to canonize only a narrow range of literature and teach
absolute meanings is changing, as Hall writes: "One of the more welcome develop-
ments in literature study in L1 contexts, and now in ELT, is the rapid growth and
popularity of literature as 'doing,' something to try for yourself" (2016, 465). Hall
refers not only to reading as a community event, but additionally to creative writing as
a response to the literary text. Elsewhere he highlights the holistic or humanistic view
of the learner this new development entails:
Literature, it is argued, can be a key resource for imaginative and personal uses of a
new language being learned. Humanistic views of the learner here replace laboratory-
inherited ideas of 'learning' (person vs. process). The emphasis moves from language as
structures, lexis and phonology to language and meaning, language as discourse, which
can support new ways of thinking, acting and being for the new language user. (Hall
2015, 17)
The aim is a deep, participatory reading of a broad range of complex and compel-
ling literary texts. The emotional resonances of story, which include conflict, tension
and resolution, can combine with the aesthetic pleasure in verbal and pictorial text,
empathy and intellectual satisfaction, to allow the cultural, literary and language input
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to become memorable, if not magical. Neuroscience now appears to be demonstrating
what educators have long contended, that story "is not just some casual entertainment;
it reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experi-
ence" (Egan 1986, 2). However, while widening the canon in ELT makes absolute
sense, both artistry and craft in the matter of storytelling remain crucial, which is a
leitmotiv in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Selznick's The Invention of Hugo CabretGraphic Novel and Mentor Text
Hugo Cabret (2007) won the Caldecott Medal for best picturebook in 2008. Selznick
entitled his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret possibly because the multimodal
format he uses is a new invention that blurs the boundary between picturebooks, nov-
els and silent film. Oziewicz (2018, in press) argues with many examples that graphic
novels display "fewer restrictions on design, style, content and formula of picture-
word interaction" in comparison to the related formats of the picturebook, comics and
comic strips. According to Oziewicz, the complex multimodal texts of Brian Selznick,
for example, are to be considered graphic novels, even though they do not feature
speech balloons or multiple panels to a page. Hugo Cabret is an exhilarating, moving
and highly complex story. Long passages of the story are told in words, like a conven-
tional novel, but much of the story is told in pictures. As a novel, The Invention of
Hugo Cabret would be considered short. The book has 26,159 words, and a novel is
said to be between 60,000 and 200,000 words. However, the book has no less than
284 pictures. There are no panels, narrated captions or speech balloons filled with
dialogue and the pictures are spread across facing pages in this respect like picture-
books that usually feature double-page spreads and the spreads additionally have a
striking black surround. Consequently the beautifully drawn black and white pictures
are like film images that fill the whole screen in a cinema.
A mentor text is said to teach readers and writers by providing a model. This form
of teaching by example is highly useful when teaching creative writing to all age
groups (Bland 2013, 156-187; Moses 2014). In the following it will be illustrated that
The Invention of Hugo Cabret can provide a model in a number of ways.
Narratives Expressively Told in Pictures and WordsMentoring Inexperienced
The narrator of the story begins, in a brief introduction, exactly as if we were going to
watch a movie:
I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a film. On
screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station
in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You
will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train
station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets. (Selznick
2007, ix)
We are asked to visualise the story of Hugo Cabret from the outset as if it were a film,
before we see the first picture of the book. This beginning explicitly helps struggling
and reluctant readers to create mental images the ability to create a mental model of
the storyworld is the hallmark of a fluent reader. McTaggart maintains:
The reading of graphic novels promotes better reading skills, improves comprehension,
and complements other areas of the curriculum. The student who, due to physiological,
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environmental, or cultural background, is unable to form pictures in his head while
reading the printed word is not really reading. […] The words give him no message,
and they bring him no joy. He needs more. (2008, 33)
The pictures that follow the introduction continue to support visualisation, as the
story is told wordlessly for the first 45 pages. Importantly, the information gap is
maintained the pictures are mysterious and provide an ambiguous "partly determin-
ing context" (Bland 2013, 146; Krashen 1999, 12-14) so that while they support
visualisation they do not block an individual imaginative mental representation of the
story. The active participation of the reader is all important to deep reading: "If the
experience of literature is genuinely transactional, it always represents a meeting
point of what texts invite from readers and what readers do in response to the invita-
tion" (Nodelman and Reimer 2003, 24).
On page 46 the verbal text takes up the narrative, and continues the story for the
next few pages, but soon pictures take over from the words again. Students read the
meanings carried in the pictures, which, in the case of Hugo Cabret, rush the adven-
ture story onwards, so that readers simply have no choice but to proceed by reading
the pictures and words in turn. Neither the verbal text nor the pictures can be skipped,
or the reader will lose whole chunks of the compelling story. This story is a puzzle,
and as with the best of stories unravelling the mystery is a joy: "a big part of the
pleasure of reading is recognizing, interpreting, and then connecting the dots so the
pattern emerges" (Cron 2012, 194-195). The pictorial narrative creates meanings that
can be explored in group work around pictures, for they are physically present as the
students think and talk around the text, providing a sensory anchor while details are
examined and discussed.
Hugo Cabret is the young protagonist who is 12 years old when the reader first
meets him as a homeless orphan living in a Paris train station in the year 1931. Quite
typically for a work of children's fiction ('children's fiction' is used as an umbrella term
to include young adult fiction), Hugo has to face tremendous hardships readers empa-
thise with him, and experience his troubles vicariously. In fact, as Nikolajeva writes,
"we now know that, through mirror neurons, our brains are capable of responding to
fictional worlds as if they were actual; capable of making sense of a linguistically con-
structed world by connecting it to our empirical or mediated knowledge of the actual
world" (2014, 23). The neuroscientific evidence for the ability of the human species to
learn vicariously through empathy has profound educational significance. At the same
time, the age gap between the focalizer Hugo and an adolescent reader for in an ELT
context, the readers are likely to be at least three or four years older than Hugo is an
advantage for mentoring deep reading. Students will be able to identify and discuss the
weaknesses and confusion in young Hugo's beliefs that drive the action and nearly lead
to catastrophe. One example of this is Hugo's obsession with fixing an automaton a
wind-up mechanical man believing it will write a message from his father who has
perished in a fire. Enigmatically, it transpires that the message does seem to be inspired
by his father, for mysteriously the automaton draws "the scene his father had described
from his favourite childhood film" (Selznick 2007, 259).
Mentoring Participatory Reading and Creative Writing
The Invention of Hugo Cabret can support creative reading and writing in the
classroom for creative writing and 'participatory reading' (Bland 2013, 120-126) are
connected: "literary texts are part of pleasurable games of the imagination, where
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children enjoy creating verbal associations which become the foundation for
imaginary stories. The pleasure of reading is closely related to the pleasures of
creating" (Schofer 2004, 389). Children's literature author David Almond expresses
the embodied nature of young readers' response to texts in his acceptance speech for
the Hans Christian Andersen Award:
For children, words don't sit still in orderly lines on the page. They work on the body
and the senses. They move fluently into drama, into movement, into dance, into song.
And the books that they read and love are similarly multi-faceted. The children's writer
is allowed a degree of liberation mostly denied to writers for adults. He is encouraged
to explore forms that are loved by children but that to many adults would seem too de-
manding, too difficult, simply too weird. The children's book world is a place of abun-
dance, abandon, experiment and play. (Almond 2010, n.p.)
Hugo Cabret teaches how stories can be told effectively yet differently in the ver-
bal and pictorial mode. The pictorial text shows rather than tells action sequences
without dialogue. The chase scenes, for example, are shown in pictures, such as when
Hugo is being hunted by an irate Station Inspector through the imposing Paris train
station. We see their running feet, pounding up ladders and down stairs, along dark
passageways and in and out through metal vents in the walls. Hugo slips through
fingers and melts through crowds as suspense is created over pages and pages of pic-
tures (Selznick 2007, 416-451). Students can be asked to create a written version of
the scene that is presented in these pictures, in order to discover and experience the
huge differences between the modes.
When Hugo is nearly run over by a train (Selznick 2007, 460-469), the almost
slow-motion effect of the looming train, from Hugo's perspective on the tracks, re-
minds us of cinematic cliffhangers. The scene is introduced by writing that is rich in
sense perception:
The horrible sound of the brakes being pulled, coupled with the metallic screech of the
wheels against the rails, made it seem like the whole station was about to collapse
around him. The black engine was zooming right towards Hugo and he was caught, un-
able to look away, as though he were watching a film. (Selznick 2007, 459)
This is followed by four spreads of the huge oncoming steam train every detail
increasingly enlarged. The fifth spread shows the hand of the Station Inspector as he
yanks Hugo off the tracks in the nick of time. An inspiring creative writing task is to
recreate verbally the horrifying experience encapsulated in the five spreads, from
either Hugo's, the Station Inspector's or a traveller's perspective.
Mentoring the Pleasure of Reading and Viewing Narrative in Books and Movies
Hugo Cabret is a multimodal celebration of the magic of story in books and movies.
The theme is the unlocking of the story of two individuals, Hugo the lonely child of
poverty, and Papa Georges, an old man selling toys in a station booth who is mysteri-
ously connected to the automaton, which is all that Hugo has left of the possessions of
his beloved father, a gifted clockmaker. Both Hugo and Papa Georges are trapped by
their poverty and by their past, and Hugo is also trapped in the train station, as a
homeless boy with nowhere else to go and belonging to nobody. The boy is a vulner-
able yet tough character who lives on the edge. He thus represents the threshold of
preadolescence while he haunts threshold situations stairs, corridors, towers and
hidden passages behind the station walls.
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But whereas Papa Georges and his wife try to forget their memories and leave the
past buried, Hugo and Isabelle, the young girl he meets, try to uncover the past
through their ingenuity and vigorous efforts to unravel mysteries and follow all the
clues. The motif of finding the key to the past (both literally important to the story
for the key to wind up the automaton is missing and metaphorically important to
Hugo and Papa Georges) is pictured on the cover of Hugo Cabret, which shows a
lock in the shape of a key (see Figure 1). We might also wonder whether the lock
refers to the way Papa Georges has tried to lock away his past, and the way Hugo and
Isabelle successfully unlock it, setting him (and themselves) free. Here are many
opportunities for interpretation while talking around the text.
Fig. 1: Front cover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (© 2007). Used by
permission of Scholastic Inc.
Despite their hardships, Hugo and Isabelle show bravery, tenacity, perseverance
and imagination. They find that both books and movies can transport them to other
worlds. This demonstrates that fiction is a journey that all can undertake as Cron has
indicated, fiction is "an internal journey, not an external one" (2012, 11). While living
in the station, Hugo maintains the colossal station clocks, and helps Isabelle discover
the magical night world of Paris from a tall clock tower: "'It's so beautiful,' said Isa-
belle. 'It looks like the whole city is made out of stars'" (Selznick 2007, 378). The
excitement, tension and delight of their discoveries are echoed in Selznick's writing
and in his pictures, so much so that a student teacher of English wrote, "I cannot get
rid of the feeling that the book somehow has been enchanted" (Paderborn University
2013). Above all, they discover the magic of the early silver screen as well as the true
identity of Papa Georges Georges Méliès. Far from being a thief, Hugo (who is
pursued by the Station Inspector because he steals food for his survival) gives
Georges Méliès, an acclaimed pioneer of film in the silent era, back his life:
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At once the cinema's first true artist and the most prolific technical innovator of the
early years, Georges Méliès was a pioneer in recognising the possibilities of the
medium for narrative and spectacle. He created the basic vocabulary of special effects,
and built the first studio of glass-house form, the prototype of European studios of the
silent era. (Robinson 2015, n.p.)
Hugo's determination when the cards are stacked against him contributes to the
power of this story. Books (in the station bookshop and research literature in the Film
Academy library) and movies (the many stills of silent films) enrich the narrative, and
this culminates in the discovery of Georges Méliès' artistic past through the fictional
book, The Invention of Dreams: The Story of the First Movies Ever Made, in the film
library. Stories are repeatedly associated with dreams in Hugo Cabrethowever, the
aspect of craftsmanship for the invention of good stories is also accentuated. For Hugo
is a skilled craftsman due to a great deal of hard work. He is as talented a clockmaker
as his father was, and throughout the narrative he is seen fixing and attempting to fix
broken clocks, machines, toys and broken people. He also painstakingly fixes the
complex automaton, so that it begins to create the hoped-for message: "A cascade of
perfect movements, with hundreds of brilliantly calibrated actions, coursed through the
mechanical man" (Selznick 2007, 240). Unexpectedly, it is the mended automaton that
provides the clue that enables Hugo and Isabelle to discover the identity of Méliès. The
automaton draws an iconic image from Méliès early film, Le Voyage Dans la Lune
(1902), and signs the name Georges Méliès symbolizing the significant interaction of
pictures, words, movies and meticulous craft.
Georges Méliès was well aware of the magic of stories as a young magician and
filmmaker in his earlier life, before he worked in the tiny boutique selling toys at
Gare Montparnasse (this thread of Hugo Cabret is historically accurate). The profes-
sor of film who together with the children persuades Méliès to accept the acclaim of
the French Film Academy and return to public life, remembers how Méliès had influ-
enced him as a child: "He bent down on one knee and whispered to me, 'If you've ever
wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look
around. This is where they are made'" (Selznick 2007, 387: see Figure 2).
Fig. 2: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, pp. 388-389, by Brian Selznick (© 2007). Used by per-
mission of Scholastic Inc.
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In the classroom, a discussion of the significance of dreams, stories and the im-
portance of craft in the telling of good stories belongs to the thematic discussion of
Hugo Cabret, and could be extended to the relevance of well-crafted story (and poor-
ly-crafted stories) in contemporary society. A contemporary magician of words, Neil
Gaiman, emphasizes the importance of dreams:
We all adults and children, writers and readers have an obligation to daydream. We
have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything,
that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing:
an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their
world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that
things can be different. (Gaiman 2013, n.p.)
At the end of the book, after a gala evening at the French Film Academy to celebrate
Méliès' work, Georges Méliès appears and is lauded by the audience of Parisians. He
explains how the magic of story belongs to everyone: "I address you all tonight as you
truly are: wizards, mermaids, travellers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true
dreamers" (Selznick 2007, 506).
Mentoring the Multiconnectedness of StoryIntertextuality and Intermediality
We talk of story threads, and about weaving or spinning stories, which emphasises
how stories are always influenced by other stories. Storytelling is inventing and rein-
venting: "In the workings of the human imagination, adaptation is the norm, not the
exception" (Hutcheon 2012, 177). Imitation and invention go hand in hand, "we need
to imitate in order to innovate. Building on what came before underlies all creativity,
in biology and culture" (Boyd 2009, 122, emphasis in the original). The Invention of
Hugo Cabret is woven throughout the narrative with references to books and movies,
the many intertexts, including numerous still frames from Méliès' and other silent
movies, slowly building an exciting introduction to the beginnings of motion pictures.
The book chronicles Hugo and Isabelle's discovery of early film history showing
with stills from films as much as telling so that the reader discovers the silent era of
the movies along with the children, and the book also works as a homage to pioneer
cinema. A strongly intertextual narrative such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret men-
tors in readers the important development of a field-independent cognitive style. More
autonomous or advanced students can be encouraged to analyse and connect elements
of the story to cultural and social phenomena outside of the storyworld, to investigate,
research, present to peers and discuss.
In addition to intertextuality, Hugo Cabret features intermediality, meaning the
materiality of the book itself is an evocation of a different medium that of film. By
including a transposition of filmic techniques, the book recalls the cinematography of
silent movies. The opening invitation to "picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like
the beginning of a film" (Selznick 2007, ix) is followed by a series of pictures that
resemble an establishing shot the initial uncut strip of film of a movie, often a long
take, before the first edit. The first picture sequence, mimicking cinematic mise-en-
scène, seems to begin with a high angle shot, taken from an extreme long shot range,
which gradually zooms in on the action. This 'establishing shot' sets the scene: the
location of Hugo Cabretindicated by the Eiffel Tower, as well as the time of day
shown by a night sky being gradually replaced by a rising sun and travellers entering
the station. Following the establishing shot, a number of close-ups reveal some kind
of a connection between Hugo and an old man selling toys in a station toy booth. The
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scene closes with a pictorial representation of the concepts of secrecy and mystery
that dominate the plot as Hugo spies on the toy booth from his hiding place behind
the huge clock face of a station clock.
Throughout the book, close-ups and extreme close-ups, cliffhangers, chase scenes,
flashbacks and juxtaposition effects of double-page spreads in an expressive continu-
um that recalls the editing of films, maintain the resemblance to silent film. This is
complemented by a suggestion of intertitles though most passages of verbal text in
Hugo Cabret are far longer and are all vastly more descriptive than the brief intertitles
of silent film. The pages are edged in black, as if we were watching the story in a
darkened cinema; thus the book itself is designed to resemble silent film. Advanta-
geously, Hugo Cabret can be studied in different creative ways at different levels of
language competence. An opportunity for advanced learners can be the challenge of
scrutinising the techniques of cinematography and their effects on the page as well as
on the screen. Episodes of the film version Hugo (Martin Scorsese 2011) can then be
studied to compare the effect of camerawork in movie narrative.
Story is often considered to be the training of the imagination to mentally repre-
sent alternative visions and potential solutions. Scorsese's Hugo, though a story told in
the very different medium of film, no less focuses on the power of stories:
But in the remediated relationship between movies and the more established medium of
books so important to Selznick's novel and Scorsese's film, what matters most is the
collaboration between these media in an openly nostalgic recuperation of the power of
story. […] Rather, the image and the word are imagined as harmonious collaborators.
(Clement and Long 2012, n.p.)
In fact it was Georges Méliès himself who invented storying as an aspect of cinema.
Before Méliès produced his fantasy films, the very earliest movies showed short real
life events, such as A Train Arrives in a Station (1895). However, narrative soon
became by far the most popular form of movie: "The [early] cinema found its audi-
ences largely in the poorer urban communities; this form of mute drama was especial-
ly attractive to the vast immigrant population with neither money nor a strong com-
mand of the English language" (Robinson 1973, 46). Similarly today, multimodal
texts are supportive of students who may not yet have sufficient language competence
and are also often not yet ready for the content of the adult canon of English-language
Increasingly, award-winning stories are being created that diverge from the typically
monomodal form of the novel, and, while appealing to most readers, they are perhaps
most valuable, as well as most neglected, in ELT with teenagers in compulsory
schooling. Stories, through mirror neurons, can simulate the multisensory nature of
experience, and for digital natives this may be particularly true of multimodal stories
like film, picturebooks and graphic novels. Stories allow us to use our imagination to
engender new options for social change. They help us act with foresight, "to explore
our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future"
(Cron 2012, 9). Compelling stories can provide the teen reader with a mindful diver-
sion, for it is "evident that teenagers are at a stage of their lives in which they are
confronted with numerous changes, challenges, and often troubling adaptations to
new circumstances" (Prusse 2014, 4).
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Brian Selznick has called his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, possibly be-
cause the precise multimodal format he uses is rather a new invention. Méliès invent-
ed a new form of movie, the fantasy film. He thus began a fashion that is still gripping
moviegoers all over the world a century later; it remains to be seen whether Selznick's
vibrant multimodal format will launch a new kind of storytelling that will be widely
accepted as both highly innovative and canonical. For The Invention of Hugo Cabret
can mentor students in participatory reading, creative writing and deep reading of
pictures, verbal text and film. It can also mentor students to connect their reading to
cultural phenomena outside of the storyworld. Finally, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
celebrates the human predisposition for storying. To Gaiman, stories are vital to being
human, just as food and warmth are: "There are lots of things that are vital to being
human. Things like food, culture, warmth. The things that are most vital, and most
easy to overlook, are stories. […] People that think stories aren't important aren't as
important as breathing, aren't as important as warmth, aren't as important as life are
missing the point" (Gaiman 2014, n.p.).
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