Brian Selznick won the hearts of readers and critics alike with his previous award-winning middle-grade novels, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (made into the movie Hugo) and Wonderstruck. Both books invented a whole new category of novel, combining gorgeous drawings with text to tell a story in unique ways. Selznick has done it again with The Marvels, a hefty brick of a novel that once again breaks new ground in storytelling.
The first half of The Marvels is a story told entirely in gray-scale pencil drawings. It opens in 1766, with two young brothers working on a ship. The two take part in a play called The Angel and the Dragon onboard where, with a crew of sailors, all of the parts are played by male shipmates. Older brother Marcus plays the angel, and younger brother Billy plays a young girl in distress who is saved by the angel. One night, in a terrible storm, disaster strikes the ship.
The story then follows Billy, back on land in London, where he discovers a new theater and finds a home there. We watch as Billy grows and has a family. Several generations of Billy’s family follow, all involved in the theater and some of them quite famous. The story-in-pictures ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, so that the reader isn’t quite sure how things turn out for the family.
At that point, the second half of the book begins, in 1990, in a story told entirely through text. We meet thirteen-year old Joseph, who has run away from his boarding school to London, in search of an uncle he’s never met before. He eventually finds the house and meets his Uncle Albert, but the man seems quite eccentric.
Albert lives in an old Victorian house that has been lovingly restored. The strange part is that the inside of the house looks exactly like it might have originally, with candles and fireplaces instead of electricity. Stranger still is that each room looks as if its Victorian occupants have just left, even to the point of a half-eaten dinner still set on the table. Joseph can’t quite figure out what is going on or why his uncle lives like this, but he begins to piece together clues within the house.
The two parts of the story gradually come together, though in ways that will surprise you. This is similar to what Selznick did in Wonderstruck, with two stories set in different time periods, where the links between them are only gradually revealed. The book ends with another short section of drawings that tie together loose ends and provide a satisfying ending.
As always, Selznick’s drawings are astounding. Up close, these look like simple pencil sketches, with hatchmarked shading. Pull back a bit, though, and those simple-seeming drawings reveal incredible detail. His people, in particular, are filled with depth and life. I found myself lingering over the pages and their lifelike people, wanting to absorb every detail. There are a few bits of text here and there – partial newspaper clippings, postcards, playbills, etc. – to fill in names and dates, but Selznick tells an incredibly rich story almost entirely in pictures.
The two pieces of the book combine to form a fascinating, in-depth tale. It’s an intricate story of family and friendships, of love and loss, and of art in its many different forms. The book’s tagline, “You either see it or you don’t,” inspires readers to look deeper – into the pictures and the text (though you still won’t figure out how the two stories are linked until it is revealed!). Reading this book was pure pleasure, a magical journey into another world.
665 pages, Scholastic Press
NOTE: Scholastic says this is a book for teens, probably because its modern-day protagonist is 13 years old, but Library School Journal says it is best for grades 4 – 6. Both are probably true: this is a book that will be enjoyed by both middle-grade and teen readers…and adults, too!