Brian Selznick received the Caldecott for his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret in 2008, Wonderstruck released in 2011, and the past September he gave us The Marvels. Of course I fell in love with his style of combining pictures and text in order to tell a story. Selznick uniquely makes a chapter picture book for middle readers in each of these but this post is devoted to his most recent work.
I saw this book last October and it took me eight months to buy it; that was a big mistake.
As soon as I picked up this booked I couldn’t let go and completed it in one sitting. This almost 700 page book finished in a few hours-a feat accomplished when almost the full first 400 pages are a story in pictures. The Marvels begins with a story of tragedy and hope following a family of famous actors through the generations beginning in 1766 until Leontes Marvel is thrown out of the theater. The next part is set in 1990 with Joseph looking for his Uncle Albert and tells the tale of love, family, redemption, grief, and life. While that may sound trite I have never read a book that introduced so many topics that can be controversial-homosexual relationships, AIDS, loss, and grief-without getting too heavy.
The pictures pulled me in with a story of a shipwreck leading to an opportunity to work at the theater and generations of being actors. The theatrical legacy ends when Leontes Marvel is banned from the theater by his father. When a fire takes over the theater and Leontes goes in to rescue his grandfather does he perish in the flames or does he make it out safely?
This cliffhanger is what ends the beginning story of The Marvels and the illustrations go blank making way for young Joseph’s story to unfold.
Joseph runs away from boarding school to look for his friend Blink. The two had planned to run away and find Joseph’s Uncle Albert; a family member in name only not someone he has met or even knows stories about. The weather wasn’t ideal for Joseph’s trek, he didn’t know where he was going but he ran into a presumably young boy named Frankie. Frankie shows Joseph where Uncle Albert’s house is. Joseph looks inside the house he sees a world of beauty.
Albert is a little rough around the edges and hasn’t had company in years though the house at one time was a bustle of activity and guests. Joseph longs to know more about his past and Frankie wants to know about Uncle Albert as he knew her older brother before he died. Joseph and Frankie push past Albert’s boundaries and the story unfolds. The Marvels are the creation of him and his partner who has died of AIDS after the death of Marcus who is Frankie’s older brother. You learn about how each one dealt with their grief differently. It ends with an emotional goodbye and the hope of Joseph for things to come.
For me this story was an amazing way to introduce hot topics like homosexuality and AIDS as well as grief and prejudice.
There isn’t anything explicitly drawn out but it is written in as everyday life. Throughout the beginning of the text book there are small clues that Uncle Albert is homosexual but it isn’t until he tells his story that one fully understands and when Joseph talks to a neighbor and finds out about his uncle and his uncle’s partner having AIDS. The mention of it makes Joseph concerned but he is reassured that he can’t catch it by living with his Uncle.
Grief is an emotion that I have an intimate knowledge of having lost several people who are close to me. I loved seeing how different characters dealt with their grief. One tries to mimic the person they lost, another shuts out those around them, and others grieve and move on but never forget.
It is easy to take blame where none is due and sometimes we grow from those experiences.
While the prejudice you see in this book is more subtle especially from a historic and current event standpoint no matter what choosing to ignore family members because of their sexual orientation is detrimental to the younger generations, the person refusing to acknowledge their family, and the family member in question. “Aut Visum Aut Non.” is a phrase that is throughout the house and when Joseph asks his Uncle what it means “Albert sighed. ‘You either see it or you don’t.’” This is the a definite them throughout the book and applies to our culture today. This piece of the book might take adult help to connect as prejudice is pervasive but I do believe that it is worth talking about and connecting to life.
This book is recommended for fourth through sixth graders but I believe that it can be read together before that depending on the maturity of the child. This book is great for kids who want to feel like they have read the biggest book out there and have a sense of accomplishment after completing a task.