Book Review: “The Marvels” by Brian Selznick

Although Brian Selznick has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1991, it was the release of The Invention of Hugo Cabret in 2007 that truly catapulted him to superstar status within the children’s literary community. Selznick’s storytelling technique – not quite graphic novel or picture book, but dependent upon its illustrations nonetheless – combines images and text in new and exciting ways, and readers thrilled by this technique in Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck won’t be disappointed by Selznick’s latest offering, The Marvels.

Rather than having images and text interspersed, The Marvels’ first 400 pages are told through illustration, chronicling the exploits of sailing-turned-acting family the Marvels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the last 200 pages told in prose, following the story of 13-year-old Joseph Jervis after he runs away from boarding school to stay with his eccentric uncle, Albert Nightingale. Selznick unfurls the relationship between these two stories gradually, in a way that both manages to build suspense in a maddening way and be totally satisfying  once all is revealed.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the illustrations in the first section of the book are breathtaking and affecting as we follow generations of the Marvel family. We begin with Billy, who is the lone survivor of a terrible shipwreck and finds a new home and community in the newly-built Royal Theatre, and end with Leo, who isn’t sure he wants to follow his family’s legacy of life in the theater. It’s not a spoiler to say this section ends with quite the cliff-hanger, as suddenly the reader is transported ninety years into the future, to London in 1990. The effect is somewhat jarring, but the momentum and excitement from the previous section helps to power through the transition – I was so eager to find out what happened and how the current story could possibly relate to the first few hundred pages of the novel that I barely missed a beat.

After the lightning-fast pace of the first section, generations passing by in just a few pages, the second section is slow to reveal its secrets, but well worth the wait. Joseph runs away from boarding school hoping to find his friend Blink, whose father abruptly took him from school a few months ago. Not knowing where else to go, Joseph heads to the house of an uncle he’s never met, and finds upon his arrival that there may be a reason his proper mother never mentioned her brother Albert. Albert’s house in London looks like a scene out of history, with furnishings from the 1800s, and he’s none too happy about having a shivering runaway turn up on his doorstep. It’s best if you just pick up the book and find out the rest for yourself!

I truly loved this book. I was totally drawn into the story, and fascinated by the different levels it exists on. The Marvels is a delightful adventure for children, but takes on new significance when read by adults who have slightly more understanding about what Albert has lived through. Selznick layers the book artfully and poignantly, saying so much so powerfully in a beautifully understated way. Buy it for yourself, cry a little, and then share it with a child in your life. They’ll love it too.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.