The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels is a book about stories and the importance of stories—telling them, living them, keeping them alive.

The Marvels

Publisher: Scholastic
Length: 672 pages
Author: Brian Selznick
Price: $32.99
Format: Hardcover
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.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.