Sometimes I get this feeling with a book, right from when I see the cover, that it’s somehow saying, “Pick me up. Pick me up. We’re going to go places together.” I got that with The Fox and the Star and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The Marvels, written and stunningly illustrated by Brian Selznick (that link has some great resources), is one of those books.
I first saw it while I was chasing my daughter around the Children’s Book Shop on a trip, trying to convince her to put down something or other. I stopped dead at that beautiful blue-and-gold cover. Look at it. Now imagine it in real life, with a deeper blue and the texture of embossed gold. Scholastic went all out with this one, giving it a beautiful feel: it’s not the Folio Society, but it feels like it wanted to hint at what the Folio Society might do. I’m a sucker for beautiful books. I picked it up, but the price tag was a bit too high for something bought on impulse while I was trying to keep the Changeling from destroying a store full of books, and since it’s a book for young adults and older I couldn’t hand it to her, so I put it back. Later, I gushed about how pretty it looked to my husband, who promptly bought it for my birthday. Yes, he’s wonderful, and he’s my husband, and you can’t have him (unless you’ve got some really good Folio Society books on offer).
It turns out judging a book by its cover is, in this case, an excellent way to go. Beauty and mystery are what it projects, and beauty and mystery are what you get. “What are these marvels I’m being promised?” you whisper as you open the book. “What’s that ship? Wait, are those illustrations?” You quickly glance at a few, then go back to the beginning and look more carefully– the illustrations are telling you a story. You slow down. “Good grief, look at these pencils, look at the depth and detail!” How old they look, you think, they really evoke that 18th/19th C period in which the book is obviously set. You follow the story until you reach the crisis, flip the page and– you see print. “But,” you reason, “maybe he’s going to continue the story that way.” You’ll miss the pictures, though. And then you read, and, “What on earth is going on here? Where are the characters I knew and loved? Who is this? Why are we in the 20th C?”
All of these and more are questions I will not be answering. I wouldn’t even answer them for my husband (who nearly snatched the book away while I was reading it, the rat, but I got him to wait and he gobbled it up right after). I definitely won’t ruin the experience for you, my darling devoted reader. Now, I’m not normally one to complain about “spoilers.” I seek out spoilers. I desire them. I will regularly read the end of a book before the beginning so I won’t have to be tormented by questions and can instead focus on construction and style. That works beautifully for Dickens, for example. It doesn’t work for puzzles and mazes, though, and this book is both a puzzle and a maze. You have to follow it from step to step or it doesn’t work. You need to ask these questions: “What are the marvels? Where did the pictures go? Where’s the magic? What are the answers to my questions?” The book draws these questions from you. It’s not a thriller, and it’s not teasing: it draws those questions out seriously, deliberately. It whispers: “Trust me: it will come clear.” And it does, I promise. The 672 pages aren’t even a long read, believe it or not, since the pictures occupy a lot of space and tell so much so quickly.
“Great,” you ask me, and I can hear the dry tone in your voice, just so you know, “So what can you tell me about this book, then, apart from the fact that it’s a pretty puzzle?” Well, I’m glad you asked. First of all, aren’t you glad to know even so much? That’s enough to get me to pick up a book. Second, I want to tell you about the effect of the book, the impact on the reader: in sum, the experience of reading it. I gave you a hint of that above when I gave you the chronological list of reactions I had when I read it myself, but we can do more than that, don’t worry.
I mentioned beauty about a thousand times so far. Let’s talk a bit about beauty. Do you like beautiful things? Beautiful worlds? Do you care that the book itself is beautiful? Then, frankly, stop reading this and go get the book, because the book is for you and I don’t know why you’re waiting (unless you’re trying to corral an excitable toddler– I totally get that). But while you’re off at the library or bookstore, I’m going to keep writing. Don’t let me keep you.
From the very first illustrations, this book is telling you about beauty as an immersive experience: that’s why I can’t tell you more about the book’s story, in fact– it demands total immersion and wouldn’t make sense at second hand. But I’ll try to get across a bit of the first few pages: first, you see a ship in the distance, and as you get closer you see that she’s called Kraken, and a child, a girl, is tied to the mast, trapped. A dragon approaches and the child’s eyes grow wide, her mouth parts, terrified. A dog leaps at the dragon from below, and then you see her eyes soften– an angel, sword in one hand and lantern in the other, is descending to save her. Then, on the next page, you see the playbill and the audience of sailors on the ship.
The child’s total immersion in the play, the complete and willing suspension of disbelief of the child actor, pulls you along. You, too, believe everything, and maybe feel a bit let down, just for a page, when you realize it’s a play, that the marvels are somewhere on another page. But then curiosity takes hold, and you move along further and further: the play was very beautiful, the dragon was remarkable, and you do love ships– what’s next? Oh no! A shipwreck! But then… and you’re swept along, swept up with the beauty of each drawing, of the characters’ faces, lovingly rendered in those shaded pencils (the affection Selznick has for his characters is palpable), swept up by the courage and beauty of the story. Until, moving away from ships and theatres, you end up in modern London, and a whole different style of beauty. Now you have the beauty of verbal descriptions rather than illustrations, but also another type of beauty, and this is perhaps the most essential to the book: the beauty of merging words and illustrations. How do the two parts of the books fit together? Can they be reconciled, or will it remain forever a mystery? And you read on, eagerly threading the two together, running into dead ends, and finally, your heart breaking with the beauty of the story, you see how they do fit together. And when you do, you realize that it’s not about magic and marvels, it’s about something deeper: love and beauty, and love of beauty. Without love of beauty, the worlds can’t be reconciled, and no one will come out satisfied, and unless you love beauty, too, you can’t be reconciled to the story, either. But, if you’ve gotten so far in the book, it will have persuaded you to love beauty, and you will come away feeling rather exalted by the story and the images.
I hope you’re not here reading these words– I hope you’re already out at the library or the bookstore, experiencing them instead. But I can tell you this: I’ve already marked this out as one of those books for my Changeling when she’s older. In the meantime, I’ll keep it to hand, and make frequent stops by the Marvels myself, I think.