The Marvels

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Marvels Book Poster Image
Epic saga of theater family, told mostly in pictures.

Parents say

age 6+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 9+
Based on 4 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Things kids will learn about: Shakespeare (especially A Winter's Tale), the poet William Butler Yeats, the world of the theater, London, Latin, the AIDS epidemic of the '90s.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about family, friends, the world you build with them, the importance of shared stories, kindness, loyalty, and respect, finding what's right for you, and making it happen.

"'Time is supposed to move forwards,' said Frankie.

"'But what if you don't like what happens?'

"'Then ... you change it.'"

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters don't always behave well, in the past or the present; parents who don't understand their kids, and sometimes don't love them either, are a recurring theme. But love and a determination to do right by your loved ones carry the day with many characters, from shipwrecked Billy Marvel to Joseph's uncle Albert, many of the neighbors, and Joseph himself.


Characters die, some of AIDS, some in a terrifying shipwreck; others are trapped in a burning building. A young character has set two fires in the past; once he was little and didn't know what fire really was, and he says the other blaze was an accident, but others aren't so sure. Other violence is more emotional than physical: the father who snatches his son away from the son's only friend (perhaps because the boys are clearly in love); distant, globe-trotting parents who don't seem to know or care who their son is and don't like him the way he is.


The story involves many couples, gay and straight, and more than one foundling left on the doorstep. Most couples are happy, many of them are married; the family troubles of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, including false accusations of infidelity, are important to the plot. A boy sends another a lushly romantic, old-fashioned poem by Yeats.


Set in London, the story uses British spelling and speech. One kid tells another to "sod off," which is much ruder in England than in the United States.


The author's note at the end readers to visit the house in London (a museum) that inspired the story.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters drink alcohol, mostly on festive occasions; 13-year-old Joseph drinks the contents, mostly alcoholic, of half-empty glasses as he's exploring the house, and he feels the pain afterward. An adult smokes a pipe. A barroom argument between a barmaid and a drunken actor has fateful repercussions for the Marvel theater dynasty.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Marvels, by Caldecott-winning author Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), is another stunner told in pictures and words, leaving few heartstrings untugged in its centuries-spanning saga about love, loss, angels, madness, fire, shipwreck, family, storytelling, the AIDS epidemic, and a faithful dog. Gay and straight couples fall in love; some get married and/or raise children, and some are divorced. Learning and study are important to the story, which may inspire young readers to learn more about Shakespeare, Yeats, and Latin in particular. Some vividly drawn scenes of a shipwreck and burning buildings may be too scary for sensitive kids, while other readers may find some parents' abuse, neglect, and misunderstanding of their children upsetting.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bycaz101 January 7, 2016

Moving, Imaginative and Multi-layered: A Great Story (/Stories) for Anyone!

We just finished this book, and I want to go back and re-read already--it's beautifully done, both in its stirring pictures (which feel so ALIVE!) and the... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byCMCDON April 8, 2018

What an elegant flow!

I personally believe that this is a fascinating book because of all of the elegant illustrations and it's exceeding educational implications.
Kid, 9 years old December 14, 2017

Fans Of Brian Selznick Will Love This One!!!

This book is absolutely brilliant! Including awesome characters, intriguing yet relatable events, and everything a book I read needs for me to love it. I raced... Continue reading

What's the story?

In 1766, young Billy Marvel and his dog, Tar, are the sole survivors of a shipwreck that claimed the life of Billy's brother Marcus, among its many victims. Rescued by an English ship, Billy and Tar find a home at a London theater, launching a famous acting dynasty, THE MARVELS, whose tale unfolds in nearly 400 pages of Selznick's skilled, meticulous, poignant drawings, leaving the page-turning reader in shocked suspense. As the prose narrative begins, it's 1990 in London, where 13-year-old Joseph Jervis just ran away from boarding school and is working up the nerve to ring the doorbell of his uncle Albert, whom he's never met. He'll soon encounter the legacy of the Marvels and try to discover what it has to do with him and his family.

Is it any good?

Brian Selznick delivers another stunner in the intertwined sagas -- told mostly in pictures -- of a shipwrecked boy in 1766, the theatrical dynasty he founded, and a teen runaway in 1990. Keep the box of tissues handy, as there's plenty of loss and many heartstring-tugging moments along the way, as well as lots of love, humor, and miracles in the strangest of places. 

It's a lush, complex tapestry of stories that rewards many visits. It also explores many deep subjects (death, loss, families, relationships, truth and fiction -- and which is which), as well as history that may be news to today's young readers, such as the AIDS epidemic. Gay and straight couples, and the joy and grief of their relationships, are essential to the story.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories -- true, made-up, and something in between -- that bring people together and keep them connected. Do you have any family legends? Why do you think they survive from generation to generation in your family?

  • Do you like books that jump around in time? How does the art help tell the story? Have you read other Brian Selznick books? How is The Marvels different or similar?

  • Do you know about the AIDS epidemic of the '90s and the impact it had on people's lives? Do you know anyone who lived in those times and were affected? Are things better today?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories about friendship and theater

Themes & Topics

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