The Marvels is a book about stories and the importance of stories—telling them, living them, keeping them alive.
The MarvelsPublisher: Scholastic
Length: 672 pages
Author: Brian Selznick
Publication date: 2015-09
Even before opening the cover of Brian Selznick’s The Marvels there’s the sense that something magical is going to happen. This feeling isn’t just because he’s written several New York Times Bestsellers, one of which was a National Book Award Finalist.
Even on the outside, The Marvels is a beautiful book. It’s heavy and has a cover imprinted with dragons, stars, and birds. The page edges are gilded to a shine. It almost feels more like a gift than a book, and like a beautifully wrapped gift, there’s the wonderful anticipation of what awaits inside.
Inside are two stories; the first told primarily in illustrations and the second told primarily in words. Each story is capable of standing on its own, and each is a good story. Like so many things in life though, something akin to magic happens when they are combined.
The first story begins on a ship in 1766, and readers quickly learn that little in this book will be what it appears. One of the first illustrations shows a girl, clearly terrified, tied to the ship. A few pages later, readers can see what she sees: a dragon, inching closer and closer. For people used to books made of words, it’s hard to resist the temptation to turn the pages too quickly. Still, only a page or two later everything slides into place, when Selznick reveals that none of this is real and is instead a play.
The sailors are just as engaged in the show as are the readers; no one notices the storm approaching until it's too late, and the ship sinks. Only two survive, a young man and his dog, Billy Marvel and Tar, respectively. Here begins a family saga, told through illustrations. It’s a saga full of love and joy, disappointment and heartbreak.
Billy Marvel and then his children and then their children become a legendary theater family. They are a family of “flame-haired geniuses”; often dubbed theater royalty by the press, but what happens when one child fails to live up to the family tradition? Their story seems to mirror the Shakespeare plays they present. The Marvel saga contains happiness, love, and the quintessential Shakespearean mistaken identity, but it also includes angst, anger, and betrayal.
This Marvel saga ends with as much drama and intrigue as it begins, and in truth, this would be enough of a story for one book. Still, Selznick gifts readers with one more.
The second part of the book begins in 1990 and follows another family drama. It’s perhaps not long enough to be a saga -- the major part of this story only lasts months as opposed to decades -- but the drama and mystery (and all sorts of other Shakespearean elements) are there all the same.
This story, told primarily in words, focuses on a boy named Joseph Jervis and opens with an extremely prophetic line: “Joseph was lost.” Lost he was indeed, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. He’s not the only one lost in this section of the book; this part is full of characters (both human and canine) who have lost their way.
Joseph is an endearing character, with personality traits both children and adults should be able to appreciate. One such trait is that he takes his favorite books, which include Great Expectations and A Wrinkle in Time, with him everywhere. A bit of an underdog, he runs away from boarding school in search of his only real friend who has gone missing.
This second story also focuses on family. This family includes Joseph and his uncle, a man named Albert Nightingale, a man Joseph doesn’t meet until he runs away from school.
Then there’s Albert’s house. When Joseph enters it for the first time, “the modern world vanished”, and “it was as if he really had tumbled headfirst into a book of fairy stories.” It’s a mysterious house, it has rooms set up for dinner parties, but no guests. There are sounds of birds, but no birds to be seen. Joseph is chastised for picking up a napkin from the floor, because everything must stay exactly as it is.
The house isn’t the only mystery, though. Another question, particularly for Joseph, is how is he (and the rest of his family) connected to the Marvels?
The book opens with the briefest of statements: “You either see it or you don’t.” It’s the perfect start for a story that has so many secrets but also so many clues.
Selznick finds a perfect way to end the book, as well. The book closes with a brief quote from Wim Wenders' book The Act of Seeing: “‘Is this a true story?’ I said ‘It is now’.” This is a book about many things, such as time and family, for example. But at its heart, this is a book about stories and the importance of stories—telling them, living them, keeping them alive. It’s a reminder that fiction isn’t always factual, but it's often truthful, and it’s a reminder that good stories, whether written in words, images, or brick, are a gift.