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Monday, August 8, 2016

The Marvels, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 2015. $36.99 ages 10 and up

"If only he had run away with Blink when he'd had the chance, then he wouldn't be standing here alone and freezing. The hazy blue light made Joseph think of the nights the two of them would sneak off to some empty room at school, light a candle, and read out loud to each other from one of Blink's books. They'd quickly get caught up in the adventures of characters with names like Pip and Mowgli and Prince Caspian."

How does he do it? Admiring Brian Selznick's work is simple - you just have to look carefully at the first few pages and you are drawn in, not minding that you are holding a very hefty book of 665 pages! The only thing is that I cannot read it in bed at night for fear that it will break my nose when I fall asleep and drop it! Once started, there was little sleep until it was done!

It is so beautifully conceived that I am still in awe and thinking about it a week after finishing reading it. The story begins in 1766 on a ship. In four hundred pages of absolutely glorious pencil drawings - almost wordless - we learn the story of a shipwreck, the death of a beloved brother, an angel, an abandoned baby and five generations of an acting family called The Marvels. They are actors in London, the place where the lone survivor of the shipwreck finds himself, alone and looking for someone to call his family.

Billy is taken in by the people at the Royal Theatre, a place he knew about from his time on the ship. There, he works and grows up, eventually taking in an abandoned child left on the theatre's doorstep. So begins an acting dynasty, until Leo decides that acting is not his destiny. He chooses the sea. A startling event at the end of the illustrated work leaves the audience aghast.

A turn of the page jumps the book forward to 1990, the written text , and a boy named Joseph Jervis. He is on the run from his boarding school. His parents are on an extended trip. He is on a quest to find his mother's brother, his uncle Albert Nightingale. Just as Billy longed for a family connection, so does Joseph. He hopes he will find his uncle and seek refuge with him. As he looks in the windows of an elegant house, he can see that it is very old-fashioned. Thus, begins our mystery. Uncle Albert is not keen to have a house guest and does his best to discourage Joseph. But, he does take him in and allow him to stay ... just for the night.

Joseph is intrigued by the house that looks like a family lives there, when there is only one person - his uncle. Every day the house looks exactly the same, and Joseph is intrigued by the pictures, the sounds, the state of the house and his uncle. They seem locked in a time long ago. With the help of a young neighbor girl he meets when he arrives, the mystery comes undone. Eventually Arthur shares the facts that have led him to live as he does. The two reach an understanding.  Can it be that they have each found a family in each other?

The addition of more illustrations following the 200 pages of text completes the tale, allowing readers to understand the true meaning of the family motto: You either see it or you don't." Then, Mr. Selznick adds an afterword that explains:

"Much of this book is based loosely on the lives of two real people, Dennis Severs and David Milne. Dennis Severs created what is known today as Dennis Severs' House, at 18 Folgate Street, in London, England ( It is consistently voted  among one of London's most popular and unforgettable tourist attractions."

Through his close friendship with the curator of the house, David Milne, the author learned much about Dennis Severs and that was the impetus to create this magnificent book. How does that happen?

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