Bob Seeney on Books

The Marvels

January, 2016

How Pictures Fit into the Story

In my graduate-level course on the history and development of children’s literature, I taught that the use of illustrations in children’s literature falls into three basic categories.

  1. To provide decoration to break up the text. This first category is perhaps the most common use of illustrations. In chapter books, they are often found at the beginning and/or end of the chapters.
  2. To amplify the text. In this category, illustrations provide visual clues for the narrative.
  3. To provide information important to plot, theme, etc., in a non-textual way. In other words, the illustrations are integral in telling the story. This is the most sophisticated way of using illustrations and one that has propelled textless books into prominence and popularity.

This third use, I readily admit, is a very favorite genre. An excellent example is Chris Van Allsberg’s 1986 book The Stranger, a book that I highly recommend. In this remarkable illustrated tale, the Stranger, who after an accident does not remember who he is, finds his identity in a moment that is shown only in illustration, not in text. This single illustration is the climax of the story.

Then along comes Brian Selznick! He has not simply recreated the textless story/novel, he has taken it to new and exciting heights. First there was his 2007 book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was made into a very interesting movie after winning, among other awards, the 2008 Caldecott Medal and being named a National Book Award Finalist. Then there was Wonderstruck (2011, Scholastic Press), the middle school winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, among other awards. And now there’s The Marvels, which has become my favorite of Selznick’s illustrated novels.

Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Marvels (2015, Scholastic Press) — where to begin? First, Selznick shows his remarkable artistic talent in his use of the media of drawing-in-pencil. Intricate, detailed, subtle, capable of explosive depiction of mood, the illustrations reach out to readers and draw us into the story, told without text. Second, Selznick uses the technique seen in his earlier remarkable book Wonderstruck, presenting two stories: one in illustration and one in narrative, leaving the reader to find the connection between the two.

In the visual part of The Marvels, Selznick relates the beginnings of a famous theatrical family of London. It all starts on a ship in 1766, with two brothers presenting a play to their shipmates. Then disaster strikes in the form of a major storm and only the two brothers survive. Cast upon a deserted island, the older brother, Marcus, dies from his injuries and the 12-year-old Billy Marvel is left alone. Rescued eventually by a passing ship, Billy begins the remarkable story of the Marvel family. Selznick keeps our attention by leaving several pages blank at the end of the visual story — right at the climax!

The narrative story begins in 1990 with Joseph, who has run away from his boarding school in England and is seeking the uncle he has never met. Selznick shows that his ability with words is as strong and inviting as his artistic expression. The narrative is tightly written and leads us to keep reading to find out what happens next. And what happens next is truly a remarkable story of family, relationships, and belonging.

Joseph finds an uncle who did not know of the child’s existence and is at first hesitant to let Joseph into his life; but slowly the boy wins his uncle’s acceptance and approval. In a cupboard in their “recreated” Victorian house, Joseph finds the manuscript of the story told in the earlier visual part of book, which leads Joseph to seek out the story of his own family. Selznick weaves together many details and interesting twists to bring us to a surprising conclusion, which I leave for the reader to discover — a journey that I promise is a truly great read!

The MarvelsBe sure to read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. They are not only interesting but important. There you’ll find out about the Dennis Severs House, an interesting “living” museum in London that recreates Victorian life. It’s both a popular tourist destination and Selznick’s inspiration for the story.

One might think that The Marvels, because of its concept, would be for the younger reader; but this would be incorrect. It is a sophisticated tale of relationships and requires a more mature reader to find, understand, and appreciate the intricacies of belonging and family. The early middle school reader is probably a good audience for this very interesting work.

Look forward to a very interesting and good read! Happy Reading!

Bob Seney


Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at

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