Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels begins as a graphic novel - a story told mainly through the use of beautifully crafted pencil sketches.

The story begins in 1766, with a ship, Kraken, on the sea. A young girl tied to the mast is saved from a dragon by an angel brandishing a sword and a glowing lantern. It is part of a play, The Angel and the Dragon performed for the sailors by two young brothers. However, during the performance, the sailors do not notice a terrible storm overtaking their ship. The Kraken is struck by lightning and the ship sinks. The older brother is badly injured in a fall from the ship's rigging. The two boys and their dog survive the sinking and wash up on an island where the older brother dies from his injuries. After burying his brother, the younger one lights a bonfire on the island. However, this causes the trees on the island to catch fire. Terrified that this would be his end, the younger brother is shocked to see a ship on the horizon. The twelve year old boy whose name is Billy Marvel is brought to London where his story is the talk of the town. Watching the construction of the Royal Theatre, Billy tells the workers his story and inspires the young man painting the ceiling to paint his brother as an angel on the dome.

Billy stays on as a worker at the theatre, growing into a young man. After the tenth anniversary celebration at the theatre, Billy discovers a basket left outside the theatre's back doors. The basket contains an abandoned baby boy with a note to raise him to be a good man. Billy adopts the baby who is brought into the theatre community and eventually becomes a child actor. His name is Marcus Marvel and he grows up to be a famous theatre actor. On June 10, 1800, Marcus marries fellow actor Catherine Vine and in 1801 they have a baby boy, Alexander.

Alexander Marvel too becomes an accomplished actor, but his career is filled with brilliant performances as well as many unplanned antics including jumping offstage during a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream to punch the father of a crying child. His grandfather, Billy passes away in 1829. In 1835, Alexander returns to the stage after a stint in jail for the attempted murder of a stage manager.

In 1836, his illegitimate child his left at the theatre by the mother. Named Oberon Marvel, he too becomes a great actor. Oberon and his wife Eleanor become famous, he especially for his role as King Leontes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. On November 10, 1888, Eleanor gives birth to a son, Leontes Marvel. Meanwhile, the baby's grandfather, Alexander Marvel who is believed to be insane, has disappeared. Many people believe he is living beneath the stage at the theatre. Unlike the previous generations of Marvels, Leontes is not interested in performing. He misses his cues and loves to draw, all the while enraging his father. This eventually leads to Leontes being banished from the theatre. Leontes discovers his grandfather, Alexander alive and living beneath the Royal Theatre stage. He tells Leontes about his family's past and gives him a medallion with a nightingale on it. After this Leontes decides to run away and writes his parents a letter telling them and asking them to care for Alexander. However, as he is leaving, the Royal Theatre catches fire. Realizing Alexander is trapped in the theatre, Leontes rushes back to save him and is himself trapped. The story panels end at this point and the prose narrative begins.

It is 1990 and a few days after Christmas. Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school,  St. Anthony's. He is trying to find his Uncle Albert Nightingale's home at 18 Folgate Street in London but the wind blew the map he and his friend, Blink, made for him to use. On the streets of London, Joseph encounters a boy chasing his white dog. The boy tells Joseph that 18 Folgate Street is near where he lives. Joseph agrees to help the boy find his dog in exchange for him helping to bring Joseph to Folgate. Along the way Joseph learns the boy's name is Frankie. When he loses Frankie and believes he is lost, Frankie yells to him to follow the ship. This turns out to be a ship weather vane on the top of a house - his uncle's house on Folgate.

Peering into the house Joseph sees a home done up like something out of the nineteenth century. Frankie reappears chasing his dog and together they watch hidden while Albert Nightingale clears his walk of snow. Joseph eventually introduces himself to Albert and asks if he can stay with him. Albert refuses but tells Joseph to go into the house, change his wet clothes and warm himself by the fire. Joseph does this and sees rooms in the house set up in a tableau format - a small picture of a ship named Kraken, the dining room table set with a half-eaten meal, a room with a Christmas tree and opened presents, toys on the stairs, candles in the windows.

In the bedroom, Joseph finds a small box with a photograph and a drawing of an angel. Exhausted he falls asleep.  In the morning Joseph asks Uncle Albert if he can meet his wife and children. Albert tells him he lives alone with a cat named Madge. Albert tells Joseph he called St. Anthony's and his headmaster is very angry with him because he sets fires. However, Joseph tells Albert the fire was an accident. He was writing a letter to his best friend "Blink" who left St. Anthony's several months ago after his father came to get him. Joseph wants Albert to help him find Blink. Albert makes Joseph promise he will not set his house on fire.

The next morning Joseph comes downstairs to find that Frankie's dog has darted into Albert's house and made a big mess, breaking glasses and plates. Instead of cleaning up the dishes, Joseph is astonished to see Albert replacing the broken plates, filling the glasses and returning a dropped napkin to the floor. The presence of ships all through the house including a tattoo on Albert's arm, as well as the unusual rooms leave Joseph with many questions.

Joseph stays with Albert, helping him clean and set up his rooms each day. One night Albert dresses in a faded tuxedo and goes out for the night. He is driven in a nineteenth-century horse-drawn carriage. Frankie surprises Joseph at the house and in his attempts to get him to leave, discovers that Frankie is a girl and also causes some of the dishes on the table to break. Frankie asks Joseph about his uncle and also why he ran away from school. She also tells him that she believes her older brother, Marcus Matthew Bloom is somehow connected to Albert and his house. She tells Joseph that she has found some of Marcus's things in the attic. While cleaning up the mess they've made the two children find various items that lead them to question who Albert is and who lived in the house. Joseph's attempts to uncover the secrets of his Uncle Albert's life lead him to understand his own life and what that what he might want.


The Marvels is a beautiful book, complete with a gorgeous cover in blue and gold, exquisite illustrations that form over 400 pages of this massive novel and an engaging story. Selznick has successfully created this type of format for juvenile fiction - stories told separately in illustrations and then in text.

The dominant theme in The Marvels revolves around what constitutes a family. Most of the regular families in the prose part of the novel are seriously flawed - a theme that's hinted at in the artwork in the first part with Leontes troubled relationship with his father. Joseph Jervis's parents are wealthy and occupied such that they rarely have time for their only child. Joseph set fire to his toy chest which led to his parents sending him to boarding school in England. Lonely and unable to fit in, Joseph runs away to find a long-lost uncle, Albert Nightingale who lives in London.

Early in Joseph's narration the reader learns, "Joseph's parents didn't really  know anything about him. They lived their lives of great privilege, with their servants and their money and their travels that didn't include him." When he enters Uncle Albert's home, Joseph remembers fondly a visit with his grandfather when he was younger. After returning home from that visit, Joseph attempted to recreate the warm fire they shared at his grandfather's home, except he did this with matches and his toy chest. His parents, not taking the time to listen nor to understand that this was done over the loneliness and sadness he felt at the death of his beloved grandfather, punish him and ship him off to boarding school in Switzerland. Joseph recognized that his situation is unusual when he acknowledges that "He was the youngest boy the school had ever taken." All of these statements show that Joseph is unloved and has a dysfunctional relationship with his parents. All he wants is a family who loves him. This is never more evident than when he walks across the rooftops of the connected houses and sees a girl (who is Frankie) reading in her bedroom. "Her room looked cosy and warm, and Joseph wondered if her parents were awake downstairs, reading side by side in their bedroom or preparing tomorrow's lunch for her."

Likewise, Albert and his sister Sylvia, Joseph's mother, had their family break apart when their mother left their father. This left Sylvia with many family responsibilities and Albert retreated to a dream world made up of stories. Sylvia was determined to find a wealthy man to marry so she could have a life of comfort and ease. She was able to accomplish this. Albert, however was more than just eccentric - he was a homosexual. Albert created his own family, first taking in Frances's older and wayward brother, Marcus, helping him to straighten out his life, and then with his partner, Billy Marvel. With Billy, Albert recreated his stories in their home, telling them to Billy every night and eventually recreating them in the various rooms . Billy died of AIDS, leaving Albert to live in a house of filled with memories and his stories unfinished. His new definition of family gives Joseph the hope that someday he too can make his own "family". And in fact this is just what happens as Joseph is shown at the end living happily with his friend Blink and a baby.

It's unlikely this massive tome will appeal much to children. The first part of the novel told in pictures is quite lengthy. There's absolutely no doubt that Selznick is a gifted artist - his drawings are simply beautiful. However it takes a long time for Selznick to get into the second part of his story, although once he does, he weaves all the lose ends together. The Marvels is more likely to be read by parents who will enjoy the artwork, the clever writing with its use of Shakespeare themes, the beautiful cover and gold embossed pages. Whether they accept the messages the book promotes will depend largely on their values and beliefs. And one of those messages is that family is a fluid concept not defined by blood relatives but by any set of individuals who come together and who love one another. In The Marvels, the presentation of this view of family is done subtly and as such, the book is a brilliant piece of marketing.

Book Review:

The Marvels by Brian Selznick
New York: Scholastic Press       2015
669 pp.

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