The Marvels is the highly-anticipated new novel from Brian Selznick, the bestselling author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. His latest novel is a true epic, spanning from 1766 to present day.
The Marvels is actually two stories — one in words, the other in pictures. The illustrated portion (nearly 400 pages) begins with the lone survivor of a shipwreck named Billy Marvel, and follows his unique family’s story over five incredible generations. The other portion of the book begins in 1990 and follows Joseph, a mysterious kid who runs away from school to his distant uncle’s home in London.
While the two stories are seemingly unconnected at first, what makes this story so special is the surprising and mysterious method that they’re eventually connected.
Sound interesting? Check out the first chapter below.
Joseph was lost.
Somewhere far away the headlights of a car swept through the snowy night. He stopped to rest beneath a low passageway off an ancient cobblestone street. A single rusting streetlamp flickered nearby. He put down his heavy suitcase, dried off his glasses, and coughed. He was shocked he’d made it all the way to London without being caught. But then again, the headmaster at St. Anthony’s was probably relieved he was gone.
Joseph leaned against the wall and pulled out the map he and Blink had made. They’d marked his uncle Albert’s house at 18 Folgate Street with a big red X, as if they were looking for treasure. All Joseph knew about his uncle were a few overheard words from his mother through the years and the line in her address book: A. Nightingale, as if they were related to a bird. He had no idea what his uncle would say if he showed up unexpectedly at his house. He prayed A. Nightingale was a generous man, more generous than Joseph’s parents, anyway, and he’d let Joseph stay for a few days and help him figure out how to track down Blink.
Joseph had forgotten his gloves on the train, and his hands were shaking. He couldn’t make sense of the map at all.
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.
It was while reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson that they first got the idea to run away together. Joseph knew it was just a game, but it was fun to imagine themselves on pirate ships or alone on desert islands. Soon their stories grew more complex. They dreamed of finding abandoned mansions in the woods and vanishing into secret chambers in ancient castles. Once, Joseph had mentioned he had an uncle in London he’d never met, and Blink insisted he get the address, just in case they were ever to really run away. Joseph had laughed, but as a surprise for Blink, he’d snuck into his mother’s room during a visit home and copied down his uncle’s address, which he proudly handed over when he returned to school.
That night, instead of reading together, the two boys had huddled in the library, creating a detailed map of the route that would lead them from St. Anthony’s in Cornwall to Albert Nightingale’s house in an area of London called Spitalfields, where their adventures would begin.
It was that same map Joseph was now holding, in the middle of a snowstorm, a couple of days after Christmas, lost in a city he didn’t know. He was supposed to be here with Blink. But Blink was gone, leaving behind nothing except a single book, and Joseph had no idea if he’d ever see him again.
There was no else Joseph could talk to about any of this, least of all his parents. They were always expressing concern that he spent too much time lost inside of stories, and now it seemed as if that’s what actually had happened.
A dog barked in the distance, and the wind suddenly snatched the little map out of Joseph’s shivering fingers. He picked up his suitcase and ran after it, toward a group of vagrants who were warming themselves over a fire by the side of the road. Joseph watched as the map was plucked out of the snow by one of the men, who looked at it briefly, turned it over, then crumpled it into a ball and fed it to the flames. Sparks lifted up from the fire like tiny orange insects, zigzagged into the air, and vanished.
Joseph panicked. What would he do without the map? He wondered if he should return to Liverpool Street Station and make his way back to school, but he’d already turned down so many streets and passed through so many little alleys, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to even find the station again. And besides, the school probably wouldn’t take him back now.
Joseph looked at his watch. It read 11:16.
The barking dog he’d heard before got louder, and suddenly a white blur came barrelling through the snow. It raced past him like a rock speeding down a mountainside.
A sound, high in the air, bounced off the brick walls and repeated itself.
Joseph, half-blinded by the snow and the darkness, turned a corner and ran straight into a boy who seemed to appear from nowhere. The boy was out of breath and his teeth were chattering. He was taller than Joseph, almost the same height as Blink, and he was wearing a blue cap.
“Hey!” gasped the boy. “Watch out!”
“Have you seen Marcus?”
“My dog. He’s white, so it’s hard to find him in the snow. His name’s Marcus.”
Joseph adjusted his glasses and pointed down the street. “He ran that way.”
The boy smiled and turned, but then stopped to look back. “You have a suitcase,” he said. “Why do you have a suitcase? It’s the middle of the night. And it’s snowing!” The boy took a step closer. “Are you running away?”
“I’m looking for Folgate Street.”
“That’s right near my flat.”
Joseph felt a wave of relief wash over him. “Fantastic!”
“But the only person who lives on Folgate Street is . . . wait . . . who are you looking for?”
“Not . . . Albert Nightingale?”
“Yes! You know him?”
“Of course I know him! Everyone knows him. But . . .”
“Why does he live like that?”
“You don’t know?”
“Don’t know what? I’ve never even met him. Please just tell me where he is! I’m freezing!”
“I’m freezing, too,” said the boy. “I’ve been out here for hours looking for Snowball.”
“How many dogs did you lose?”
The boy stared at Joseph. “What are you talking about?”
“You said your dog’s name is Marcus.”
“Oh! Right! No, I don’t think that’s it. It would upset my mum too much, and my dad probably wouldn’t like it, either. Maybe Paddington!”
“Don’t you know your own dog’s name?”
Joseph was confused, but he was distracted by the wind whipping down the street and the cold water seeping into his shoes. He looked again at his watch.
“What time is it?” asked the boy. “It must be late.”
“I don’t know.”
“You just looked at your watch.”
“Then why did you look at it?”
Joseph’s head was pounding. He didn’t feel like talking; he just wanted to find his uncle.
“Why don’t you get your watch fixed?” asked the boy.
“I don’t want to get it fixed.”
“Why not? What use is wearing a broken watch?”
Joseph wasn’t about to tell this stranger the real reason he wore the watch, and he was losing patience. “What use is chasing a dog whose name you don’t know?” He turned and marched off down the street. He’d find his uncle’s house on his own. It couldn’t be too far now.
“Wait!” came a voice behind Joseph. “I’m sorry.”
Joseph kept walking, but the boy jumped in front of him.
“What time is it?”
“Don’t be so stroppy. I mean, what time is your watch stuck at?”
Joseph did not like this boy at all, but he pulled up his jacket sleeve and showed him the watch. “11:16. Now will you leave me alone?”
“I have an idea. Help me find my dog, and I’ll help you find your uncle.” The boy smiled.
Joseph sighed. “Do you promise?”
The boy nodded and adjusted his cap. His nose was bright red. “Good! Let’s go!” He ran down the street shouting, “Pudding! Paddington!”
“How will we know when we get the name right?” asked Joseph, trying to keep up.
“When he answers to it!”
Joseph was tossed back into the labyrinth of ancient streets as he followed the boy, shouting the names of dogs from books he’d read: “Bull’s-eye! Toto! Snowy! Pongo!” After a while they paused to catch their breath.
“Look,” said the boy, pointing to a sign. “My father’s shop.”
The sign read Bloom’s Bakery.
A light was on in a window above the shop, and the shadow of a figure passed across the closed curtains. “And there’s my dad! Keep your voice down.”
“He doesn’t know you’re out here?”
The boy shook his head. “Do your parents know you’re out here?”
Joseph’s parents didn’t really know anything about him. They lived their lives of great privilege, with their servants and their money and their travels that didn’t include him. He glanced up at the window and changed the subject. “You live above a bakery?” he asked.
“No,” the boy whispered.
“Come on. This way!”
Soon a church steeple appeared in the distance, silhouetted against the moon, and the boys came to a long row of old brick buildings, all separated by a series of pitched glass roofs held up by cast-iron frames. The openings between the buildings led into a vast nighttime marketplace, lit by a procession of fluorescent lights. Delivery trucks pulled in and out of the market, and inside were a hundred different stalls, with names like Gibbs and Pardoe Fruits, Great British Mushrooms, and David Kira, Banana Merchants. Old crates filled with fruits and vegetables were piled everywhere, and the place teemed with people, even at this hour. The boy pointed to a four-sided clock suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the market. It read 11:36.
“If we’d been here twenty minutes earlier,” said the boy, “your watch would have been correct!”
A dizzying cascade of smells mingled in the cold air. People gathered for warmth around a cast-iron stove where someone was making tea. “The Little Drummer Boy” played on the radio. Christmas decorations still hung on the walls, and a few strings of coloured fairy lights blinked on and off, like a secret code.
Joseph and the boy ran up and down the aisles searching for the dog until they bumped into a man piling silvery fish onto ice. He wore a thick checked wool coat with a white apron tied over it, a long scarf, and a leather top hat.
“Frankie!” said the man, sounding surprised. “What are you doing here so late at night?” He spoke with a French accent, and there was a gap between his front teeth. “It’s not the dog again, is it?”
Joseph noted the boy’s name.
“Have you seen him?” asked Frankie, trying to catch his breath.
“Does your mother know you’re out? You must not worry her so much.”
“It’s okay, she’s asleep!”
“Sneaking around will only lead to trouble . . .”
Just then, there was movement at the end of a long aisle on the other side of the market. Someone shouted, “Get out of here, you runt!” They heard barking, and Joseph saw a dirty white ball of fur with something in its mouth dash out from beneath a table.
“Well, I think you have found your dog,” the man in the top hat said with a curious smile.
Joseph and Frankie chased the dog into the streets again. After a few minutes, Joseph bent over to catch his breath, and he dropped his suitcase. It sprung open and as he looked down at his clothes and books in the snow, his glasses slid off his nose.
“Hello?” Joseph yelled. He found his glasses, dried them off, and put them back on. “Frankie?” There was no answer. “You promised you’d help me!”
Joseph returned everything to his suitcase, pausing when he came to the bright red book Blink had left behind. He carefully dried it off as much as possible and gently ran his hand along the cover. In gold letters, it read, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats. Joseph set it safely inside his suitcase.
Frankie was gone and Joseph’s toes were going numb. He needed to find somewhere warm soon. He looked for an open doorway or a place he could escape from the snow for a little while. Finally, the howling wind took pity, and it spoke from far away.
“Follow the ship!”
It sounded like the beginning of a pirate adventure he and Blink would have loved. And then it came again . . .
“Follow the ship!”
Joseph realized it was Frankie’s voice, calling to him from some other street.
“What are you talking about?” Joseph yelled into the night. “Where are you?”
But there was no answer now.
“What ship?” Joseph trembled. “Answer me!”
There was no ocean, no dock, nothing nearby at all, just streets and parked cars and darkness and snow.
Frankie’s voice cut through the cold night air once more: “Follow the ship!”
Joseph looked up into the sky, although he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he was looking for the moon, or a star, or a chimney with plumes of smoke to guide himself by. He thought he saw something far away glint in the dark. He cleaned off his glasses to get a better look and found himself walking toward a mysterious glow.
And there it was.
Appearing through the snow, high in the air, was a golden sailing ship, like a dream a lost sailor might have. Joseph thought of “The Little Match Girl,” a story he’d read in school last year about a girl who ended up dead in the snow after a freezing night filled with beautiful visions. Joseph hoped he wasn’t imagining the golden ship, and he prayed his own story wouldn’t turn out like the Little Match Girl’s.
Not knowing what else to do, Joseph ran toward the ship. As he drew nearer, he saw it was a massive golden weather vane, signalling to him. A sign that read Folgate Street was just visible beneath a thin sheen of snow on the corner, and soon he was standing in front of an old brick building in the middle of the dark narrow road. There was a large metal gas lamp hanging above the entrance, illuminating a brass knocker shaped like the head of a dog with a ring in its mouth. Pine garlands with red velvet ribbons were hung around the doorframe. The house provided the only light on all of Folgate Street.
The number 18 was nailed to the centre of the door.
From The Marvels by Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press © (2015) by Brian Selznick, used with permission.