With 284 pictures between the book's 533 pages, the book depends equally on its pictures as it does on the actual words. Selznick himself has described the book as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things." The Caldecott Medal is for picture books, in 2008 this was first novel to receive.The primary inspiration is the true story of turn-of-the-century French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès, his surviving films, and his collection of mechanical, wind-up figures called automata. Selznick decided to add automata to the storyline after reading Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood, which tells the story of Edison's attempt to create a talking wind-up doll.
Méliès actually had a set of automata, which were either sold or lost. At the end of his life Méliès was broke, even as his films were screening widely in the United States. He did work in a toy booth in a Paris railway station, hence the setting. Selznick drew Méliès's real door in the book.
This book is, frankly, quite amazing. Simply put, it's a picture book for big kids (and adults). Selznick so beautifully tells the story not only with words, but with hand-drawn pictures, as well as with some snapshots from the original Georges Méliès' films.
The story is about a boy named Hugo, who lives in the apartments above a railway station in Paris. His father has died and his uncle abandoned him, so he is all alone. Before he disappeared, his uncle used to wind up all the clocks in the station, and taught Hugo how to do so as well. So that no one finds out that the young boy lives by himself, Hugo continues his uncle's work and keeps hidden.
Hugo also kept his father's old journals, and is secretly continuing a project of his father's: fixing an automaton. Hugo has been stealing parts from a toy booth at the station, when one day, he gets caught by the old man who runs the station. The old man sees his journal of the drawings of the automaton, and takes it, although he acts quite strange about it. Hugo then enlists the help of the old man's granddaughter to get his book back and figure out how everything is connected.
The story itself is light, humorous, and not hard to read at all. Instead, the very essence of the novel is the pictures. Detailed and intricate, they tell the story way better than it could have ever been told with just words. Although not all books could be written in this fashion, somehow, it just works with this one.