Want two words?
In The Marvels, author (and artist) Brian Selznick applies the technique he’s used previously (and so effectively) in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. In these books, the drawings aren’t illustrating the story — they’re telling the story.
Over 600 pages in length, The Marvels is told purely through illustration for the first 390 pages. And such gorgeous illustrations! Each set of double-facing pages contains a black and white pencil drawing, magnificently detailed, that serves to tell a piece of the story. From page to page, the tale unfolds, and the pictorial story is full of drama and emotion.
The story of The Marvels begins in 1766, with two brothers, Billy and Marcus, shipwrecked during a storm at sea. Rescued from the island where he washes up, Billy and his dog Tar find their way to London, where they’re adopted by the crew building the Royal Theater. Billy’s story of his brother’s love inspires the theater’s designers so much that Marcus is immortalized as an angel painted on the theater’s ceiling.
From there, the generations follow: Billy grows up and adopts an abandoned baby, who in turn grows up to become a star of the theater, and onward for several more generations. The Marvel family is the world’s most revered family of actors, acquiring world renown, while at the same time dealing with madness and the final disappointment of a descendant who only wants to escape from the family business. The story ends abruptly with a fire in the theater… and we turn the pages to blank whiteness, and then to the story’s continuation, in printed form, in 1990.
The next several hundred pages are told via the narrative of a 12-year-old boy named Joseph, who runs away from his repressive boarding school and seeks shelter with his eccentric uncle Albert, a man whom he’s never met before. Albert lives in a house that seems more like a museum, employing gas lights and candles to illuminate a mansion full of old-world treasures. Joseph is intrigued by the mystery of Albert’s home, and tries to get his uncle to open up about his secrets and share the truth about their family’s past.
How does this connect to the story of the Marvel family? I’m not telling. You’ll want to find out for yourselves. What I will say is that it wasn’t what I expected, but I was enthralled none the less.
At first, I felt impatient with the written part of the story. The illustrations are so beautiful (that word again!) and pulled me into their world so completely that I hated leaving it behind. But, bit by bit, the story of Joseph and Albert pulled me in as well, and teasing apart the hints to try to unravel the secrets was equally engrossing.
The book itself is hefty and magical to hold:
Several inches thick, with gilted edges and a gorgeous cover that feels like a throwback to an old-fashioned library edition, The Marvels is just so lovely to look at. This is one book you’ll want in a physical copy for sure — an e-book just won’t be the same.
The story is powerful in both its parts, with themes of love, devotion, and continuity, family commitment and inheritance, and a sense of wonder that is hard to describe. I found myself so absorbed in the mood created by this book that it was hard to re-enter the real world after finishing.
Wonderstruck may still be my favorite Brian Selznick book, but The Marvels is either a tremendously close second or perhaps right on par with Wonderstruck. For sure, both deserve a permanent place on my shelves, and are books that I’ll return to over the years. Reading these books is an immersive experience, and the power of the illustrations cannot be overstated.
So yes, one more time, I’ll return to my one-word review:
Title: The Marvels
Author: Brian Selznick
Publication date: September 15, 2015
Length: 665 pages
Genre: Children’s fiction (middle grade/young adult); illustrated