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The Marvels


The Marvels

The story in THE MARVELS by Brian Selznick begins with more than 300 pages of dramatic black and white illustrations. It is 1766 and we are shown a ship at sea. A terrified little girl is saved from a sea monster by a gentle-faced angel. As the pages turn, we find that these are actors entertaining the ship’s crew and passengers. But, the storm that wrecks the ship is real and there are only three survivors; two brothers and their dog. Sadly the older brother, Marcus, does not survive for long. The younger brother, Billy Marvel, along with the dog, Tar, are left to make their way to London to begin a new life. And thus starts the epic family tale that THE MARVELS tells.

Billy Marvel finds his way to the Royal Theatre where he establishes a family dynasty of great red-haired actors. From his adopted son Marcus to his grandson Alexander, all the way through to his great-grandson Oberon and great-great grandson Leontes, the Marvel men are passionate geniuses whose lives center around the Royal Theatre until it burns to the ground in 1900. Selznick zooms ahead to 1990 and the next part of the book is told in words instead of pictures. Like Billy Marvel, Joseph Jervis is alone in London. He has just run away from boarding school and is wandering the freezing night looking for his uncle's house.

Before finding his uncle, Joseph meets Frankie, a young boy chasing a white dog through the neighborhood streets. Frankie directs Joseph to his uncle's house and what Joseph finds takes his breath away. Albert Nightingale's home is a large time capsule: through the velvet curtains over the window Joseph can see a fantastic 19th century dining room set for a feast with a portrait of a dark-eyed man hung on the wall. Uncle Albert turns out to be just as strange as his home. He and Joseph have never met, and so with each day that goes by of Joseph's stay, the two learn more about each other.

"A phenomenally curious and thought-provoking book that is physically impressive and delightfully imaginative."

However, some mysteries remain --- how are Joseph and Albert related to the Marvel family? How does Frankie know Albert? Why is Albert so obsessive about the house and its furnishings? Selznick allows the tension to build and then answers these questions in astonishing and memorable ways. The heartbreaking and lovely near resolution of the book segues once again when Selznick switches back to illustrations to finish telling the story.

The beauty and cleverness of THE MARVELS goes beyond the inventive process of storytelling via two mediums and beyond the interesting plot itself. In this book, readers are challenged to think about storytelling as an essential human experience and expression. Creativity in general and storytelling in particular, Selznick asserts, can bring joy and intimacy and can even be an emotional salvation.

There are a few (very few) awkward passages as Selznick portrays Albert Nightingale, but they hardly detract from the overall success of THE MARVELS. Selznick has a few big narrative tricks up his sleeve but he avoids manipulation. The result is a phenomenally curious and thought-provoking book that is physically impressive and delightfully imaginative.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 14, 2015

The Marvels
by Brian Selznick

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2015
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Mystery, Youth Fiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0545448689
  • ISBN-13: 9780545448680