Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Arrival and The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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Everything is new to the infant. I remember seeing my tiny daughter, only minutes old, lying in her father's arms drinking in the scenery with eyes wide open, and suddenly realizing what an odd world we'd brought her into. Over time our world becomes familiar, and in adulthood many of us find we live within well-worn grooves, no longer really seeing our surroundings. The other day I left the house to do my usual after-school circuit, but I started from a different spot than I usually do. Driving on auto-pilot, I had gone six blocks past my turn before I realized exactly where I was -- which was not exactly where I was supposed to be. I just hadn't seen the signs.

Sometimes a child's sense of wonder can refresh my own. While I can get annoyed with the constant echo of "did you know?" and "Mom, look at this!" I try to remind myself that for Nick, at ten, there's still a lot of the world that's new and unknown, that he has a lot to learn, and that I should be grateful when he shares it, even if it's not new to me.

Of course, often, it is new to me. Nick goes through life with a crayon or pencil in his hand, drawing the world he sees around us, and another one he sees only in his mind. His drawings, like his constant questions, refresh the world for me. I'm also a little envious of them -- my orientation is nowhere near as visual as his, and he can both see and reproduce details that escape me until he brings them to my attention. Sometimes I think he's like an immigrant here, learning the language and the lay of the land all at once, trying to make his way, to make sense of his experience. Maybe all children are like that.

Shaun Tan's astonishing picture book, The Arrival (Arthur A. Levine, 2007), suggests that they are. The book tells a subtle story of exile, immigration, and hope -- without a single word. In sepia-toned drawings, Tan depicts a small family -- father, mother, daughter -- separated when the father leaves to find a new home. We don't know quite why he has to leave--though the shadow of a dragon's tail appears ominously in several pictures -- or where he is going. When he gets there, though, he becomes like a child, trying to find his way in a world that doesn't easily yield its secrets. What does the writing mean? Are the animals friendly? Can he eat the food? The tale moves slowly, sometimes depicting moments in a day almost frame-by-frame, other times making larger narrative leaps to tell the histories of those he encounters, weaving them in with his own.

Though The Arrival had excited terrific buzz when it came out, I resisted reading it for some time, fearing that I wouldn't "get" it, that it wouldn't be legible to me. In fact, the book sat unopened on the coffee table for days until my husband Mark (from whom Nick gets his artistic orientation) read it and began talking to me about it. His enthusiasm goaded me on, and I found myself sharing that sense of childlike wonder as I turned the pages, ever more slowly, hoping to drink in all the details. So I, too, became like the child, learning a new visual vocabulary as I worked my way through the tale, trying to puzzle out the story without all my old familiar clues. The warm sepia-toned illustrations have the look of old photographs; some are bent and creased, as if with age, while others have a startling clarity. We are all newcomers here, the book tells us, and so we are--but we carry with us stories that can unite us. Despite the familiar format of the picture book, Tan's tale will challenge even sophisticated readers; the subtlety of the tale and some of the nightmare visions of flight from oppression mark this as a young adult novel, though younger readers will certainly be able to grasp the narrative.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007), is another new book with an unfamiliar format. Neither standard picture book nor traditional novel, Selznick's book won the 2008 Caldecott medal, awarded annually to "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children". This one didn't intimidate me as The Arrival initially did, but its heft and length (it's over 500 pages long) might put off its ideal readers.

And who are those ideal readers? Curious kids, I think, kids like my son and nephew -- who both sat enthralled through readings of the book, who love stories and pictures and how the two go together. It's a mystery, an orphan tale, and, finally, a tale of the early days of film-making, and of the ways in which film-making (or any kind of storytelling, really) and magic are related. The book opens with a brief, scene-setting introduction, bordered in black, mysteriously promising: "The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever." Before we can see that drawing, though, we are ourselves drawn into the tale through detailed pencil illustrations, showing us first the moon, then a Paris nightscape, then the train station where we will meet Hugo himself. The black borders contract as we move into the tale--a technique I first noticed in Where the Wild Things Are, which uses white borders to indicate Max's daily life, and gradually pushes them off the page as his fantasy world takes over. Here, though, the borders never fully disappear; Hugo's world has sharp edges, and the pictures make clear the sense of constraint -- but also excitement -- conveyed by arches, windows, doorways, and narrow passages. With subtle pencil-shading and cross-hatching, Selznick builds a world, detail by detail, echoing the ways in which early film-makers themselves crafted worlds for their own tales, as toymakers craft the intricate mechanical objects that also inhabit this world.

Unlike picture books for younger children, both The Arrival and The Invention of Hugo Cabret focus our attention on adults as well as children. The hero of The Arrival leaves his daughter behind as he makes his way to a new home, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret is as much the tale of an old man's redemption as of a child's discovery. Both tales depict unfamiliar worlds, as well. While Tan's is imaginary and Selznick's is historical, neither exists today. And yet in the pages of these books, they do exist, and with each viewing, they grow richer and deeper. The moon that opens The Invention of Hugo Cabret returns, refreshed and enlarged, at the end, and the faces that stare out from faded and torn passport photos at the opening of The Arrival no longer seem strange when we've seen how their stories unfold. Stories beget pictures, pictures beget stories, and the world is made new by the curious child who asks "what is that?" Our children already inhabit a world that's different from our own; we acknowledge this ruefully when we don't understand their slang, happily when we see them take on challenges we've avoided or never seen. Books like these remind us that we all inhabit different worlds, but rather then leave us with that potentially depressing reminder, they show us how to use imagination -- Nick's crayons, Mariah's wide-eyed stare, the openness of the immigrant, and the persistence of Hugo Cabret -- to bridge those differences.

(For more information on The Arrival, see Shaun Tan's website which has detailed descriptions of his creative process. For more information about The Invention of Hugo Cabret, including a slide show of the opening images, see the book's website.)


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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Libby, I always enjoy your literary insights. You constantly open a world of titles for me that I would not otherwise be aware of! I'm adding these titles to my "must read" list.
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