Books Middle Grade Mystereadventure Reading Ruminations Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

[Saturday Reads] The Marvelous Mystery in Brian Selznick’s “The Marvels”


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.


The Marvels

Written and Illustrated by: Brian Selznick
Published by: Scholastic Press, 2015
Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

It has been three years since Selznick published WonderstruckAfter reading The Marvels, I realized why it took him that long a period to come up with another magnum-opus. For someone who is virtually unparalleled in his craft – there is no one I can think of who does the same massive thing that Selznick does for middle grade/young adult readers – Selznick seems intent on challenging his own self by coming up with bolder, brighter ideas to up his game. His followers would not be disappointed with The Marvels which weaves together two parallel stories that are 200 years apart.


Unlike Wonderstruck, which has been described by Jonathan Hunt from School Library Journal as similar to a ballroom dance with its slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, quick pacing – as the narrative moves from images to text to images and so forth – The Marvels presents a different format with the first 391 pages told in exquisite art, whereas the next 211 pages (thereabouts) filled with fast-paced text.

The art narrative begins in 1766 aboard a ship named the Kraken. A theatrical performance is being done by the crew when lightning strikes and everyone dies except for two brothers who were washed ashore. The older brother eventually died while the younger boy Billy was rescued by an English ship and brought to London where he found himself in another home, the Royal Theatre:


While told entirely in images – Selznick is quite crafty in that he inserted newspaper clippings, found letters, and signages that would tell the reader what is happening as the story moves forward from one Marvel generation to the next. There is madness, abandoned babies:


theatre marriages, parental rejection, the search for one’s destiny, and a tragic fire to end the first part of the novel, leaving the readers hanging as to whether the Marvels survived or not.

Fast forward to 1990, the text-narrative, where the reader gets introduced to Joseph Jervis who ran away from his boarding school to find his uncle named Albert Nightingale who lives in 18 Folgate Street, London. The house seems haunted with strange noises, the uncle was not was Joseph expected with his peculiar ways in arranging his 18th-century inspired house just-so, like it was some kind of set in a play that is about to start any minute.

What I also especially love about Selznick is how effectively he introduces intertextuality to his novels. In Wonderstruck, there is Oscar Wilde’s “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” In The Marvels, the reader is introduced to William Butler Yeats. I took a photo of the page where one of his poems was referenced and edited it using an iPhone app:


Then there are clues littered around Albert Nightingale’s strange home with pictures of the Kraken, cassette tapes that seem to tell the story of the Marvels – leading the reader to form an educated guess that perhaps the Jervises are related to the Marvels. How Selznick ties these little mysteries together pushes the boundaries of storytelling and its essence, the age-old question of what constitutes truth and falsehood, especially as the reader gets to the Author’s Note at the end of the book which shows that 18 Folgate Street is an actual place in London – as the entire novel is inspired by Dennis Severs House.

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 6.32.29 PM

Had I known about this place while I was in London earlier this year, I would have totally visited it. So sorry to have missed it. I was also happy to note that the gay couple in this novel is not what one would call a token gay couple. And the mystery of what happened to the Marvels and why Uncle Albert Nightingale seems to be haunted and driven by demons – I shall leave to you readers to discover. My favourite art is found in the last few pages where I literally gasped aloud as I flipped through the pages:




This is a Selznick creation that one should add to one’s book shelf. I foresee this book receiving a great deal of awards in 2016. If you are still looking for a Belated Christmas present to give to your young readers – you won’t go wrong with this one. Buy it!

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “[Saturday Reads] The Marvelous Mystery in Brian Selznick’s “The Marvels”

  1. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] Six Overlooked Fiction Picturebooks by Author-Illustrators (..or Could Have Received More Love) in 2015 (Part One of Two) | Gathering Books

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