Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Marvels

The Marvels
Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2015  661 pgs.
Grades 5-Up

Creative genius, Brian Selznick, ends his trilogy of fabulously illustrated/fiction hybrids with this masterpiece.  The first full half of the book is told visually in stunning pencil illustrations tracing a family's journey.  We begin in 1766 with a tragic shipwreck in which a lone boy buries his beloved brother, gets rescued, and finds himself working with other former sailors in a bustling London theater.  As an adult an abandoned baby is left for him to raise, beginning a theatrical dynasty which continues for five generations. The story abruptly ends with a devastating fire in the theater, where the youngest of the Marvels and his insane grandfather appear to be trapped.  Now the book moves ahead to 1990 and is written in prose.  Joseph is running away from his restrictive and lonely Swiss boarding school in search of a missing friend recently transported to London.  His only connection in London is an uncle who he has never met named Albert.  A new friend, Frankie, helps him to locate his uncle's house, where he is greeted less than cordially.  The house is a step back in time with no electricity, heat, or modern conveniences.  Beyond this, Uncle Albert is secretive and creepy, weird sounds and noises are often present, and Joseph thinks he has seen ghosts.  Uncle Albert is no help as to the history of the house and its former inhabitants and reluctantly lets Joseph stay and help him to caretake the establishment, which is frozen in time down to the half eaten food on the table.  After searching around for clues to the house and to the long-gone mysterious family, Joseph and Frankie are led to the theater where a picture on the ceiling of an angel seems to unlock some of the secrets.  After speaking to the theater manager and becoming more confused than ever, Joseph finally forces Uncle Albert to reveal the truth behind the family of the house, the secrets behind the haunting, and his own personal history and motivations for his uncle's strange behavior.  After the truth is disclosed Albert and Joseph become close, having shaped themselves into a true family, which they both desperately need.  Then tragedy strikes, leaving Joseph feeling more alone than ever before.  It is through this sadness that he realizes that he is the author of his own story.  He finishes the illustrated family history, finding closure to the cliff-hanging fire, and writing his own happy ending.

Whew!  Selznick ends his amazing trilogy (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck) with a bang.  in my opinion he is the best illustrator for young people alive today, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak (who he acknowledges as an influence).  On top of his intricate artwork he is also a gifted writer, picking each word used in his text with care.  His books are modern fables and instant classics.  The Marvels is no exception.  Ambitious at over 600 pages, the book reads fast, as with his other works.  The illustrations are painstakingly created and one can only imagine how many hours he spent creating them.  This is not a trilogy in plot, it is a trilogy in format, playing with the concept of how we tell stories.  In The Marvels Selznick chooses to share the story of the family in wordless illustrations and the near-present reality in text.  Joseph must uncover the family secrets revealed in the illustrations at the start of the book and then he uses the same format to take control of his own life and tell his own story.  This is a complex book for mature and thoughtful young people and adults.  The plot is very involved and at times complex and a little tricky to follow.  This story does not belong solely to Joseph, but is shared by his uncle and, in part, the family next door.  All the story lines come together in a satisfying way and Selznick does not leave the reader dangling.  The ghosts of the house are explained and there are no supernatural elements, even though it feels like a magical tale.  Part Dickens, part Little Match Girl, part Gothic ghost story, this book manages to combine the history of the London theater scene, nautical history, and the early 1990's AIDS epidemic, all while offering a satisfying mystery and family tale.  The Marvels seems to be a bit more self indulgent in subject matter and bit less reader driven than his previous works, but Selznick is such a genius he is rightfully allowed to proceed in whatever direction he is led.  Themes such as the power of story telling and defining what makes a family are explored and the reader comes away with a feeling of hope and power.  As with his previous two books, it will be hard to pigeon-hole this title.  Selznick continues to push the envelope on our definition of what a book for young people is   Now that this trilogy is finished I will be very curious to see what direction he takes us to next.

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