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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: The Marvels vs The Nest


JUDGE – Carolyn Mackler

The Marvels
by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press
The Nest
by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster

My eleven-year-old son is the gatekeeper of all middle-grade books entering our apartment and so, when The Marvels by Brian Selznick and The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, arrived in the mail, he snatched them up and read them before I could get a glimpse. “The Nest is creepy and awesome,” he said the following morning. And The Marvels? “So good. So sad. You’ll want to cry in the first hundred pages.”

I like “creepy and awesome” if it doesn’t happen when I’m on a camping trip and I love a solid cry if it doesn’t have to do with my own life. So I went into The Nest and The Marvels with high hopes, and I was not disappointed.

Four things about The Marvels that made it awesome:

  1. Brian Selznick’s illustrations. The first nearly four-hundred pages of The Marvels feature Selznick’s stunning pencil sketches that are so soulful and awe-inspiring that I felt like I was IN the drawing. Yet while they are pulling in the viewer, they are also causing the viewer to step back and, a-hem, marvel at Selznick’s extraordinary artistic talent and his ability to move a story forward through pictures and a few carefully chosen words.
  2. The Marvels! Not the title but the theater family. We meet the Marvels through illustrations at the beginning of the story, in 1766, when two brothers are washed ashore after a shipwreck. One brother dies (enter a solid cry here, around page 100). The surviving brother, Billy Marvel, moves to London and joins the theater world. Billy spawns several generations of talented actors, yet it all comes to a screeching halt (and fiery flames) in 1900.
  3. Enter the equally awesome text. The year is 1990 and a boy, Joseph, is running away from boarding school to the house of his estranged uncle, Albert Nightingale. The house is frozen in time, perhaps 1900? The house holds secrets, perhaps about Joseph’s family? Joseph is determined to get to the bottom of it; his uncle is determined to keep it under wraps. Struggles ensue until they both break down and many truths pour out. We learn, with a bittersweet sigh, that the Marvels are a creation of Uncle Albert, and Billy Marvel was an actor and Albert’s now deceased true love, an early victim of AIDS. We rejoice at Joseph and Albert’s connection and what is gained from that, and we mourn at what is lost, and then we mourn again when Albert succumbs to complications from AIDS as well.
  4. How amazing were the sketches at the end? Just an exquisite few, where the story of the Marvels continues into a dreamy far-off future that feels just right.

Four things about The Nest that made it awesome:

  1. The voice. After an eerie prologue, we quickly meet Steve, the protagonist. He’s twelve-ish and things are looking grim this summer. His mom just gave birth to a gravely sick baby who Steve refers to as “the baby” because it’s tough to get connected to an infant who has a weak heart and might die and will never turn out normal. Whatever normal is. More on that later. Steve also struggles with anxiety. While it’s not surprising that his anxiety is flaring up right now, what’s special is the way Oppel handles it—not over the top and his quirks don’t define him.
  2. Phew, tension. We’ve got the sick baby, and the clock is ticking until a surgery to repair his heart. Steve can sense his mom’s sadness and his dad’s stress and there’s someone calling their home phone and not saying anything. The family jokingly calls him Mr. Nobody but it’s not really a joke, especially since Steve’s little sister swears she’s receiving calls from Mr. Nobody on her toy phone. And then we meet the knife-sharpening guy, four fingers on each hand, who cruises around Steve’s suburban block with nary a customer in sight. The knife guy – who is NOT going on my camping trip – seems particularly interested in Steve’s family. Oh, and there are the wasps circling their house. When Steve is stung early on and discovers he’s allergic, the loaded gun is introduced.
  3. The titular nest. It’s the nest of the queen wasp, who is as creepy as the knife guy. No, at first she seems kind. She comes to Steve in his dream and offers to help with the baby. Over the course of many nights and many wasp/Steve conversations, it becomes apparent that the queen’s plan is sinister. She is building a perfect new baby in her nest, which is hanging outside the flawed baby brother’s window. When the wasp-made infant is done gestating, she’s going to need Steve’s help switching babies. It’s a giant leap of a premise, but it works here, and we NEED Steve to thwart her plan. It also gets us thinking about what is perfect and normal and how maybe perfect and normal are not what we want because, let’s face it, none of us are.
  4. The way it all wraps up in the end, and yet it doesn’t. Yes, the wasps storm the house and the loaded gun goes off. And yet. And yet. And yet I had so many questions. As soon as I was done, I cornered my son and made him discuss The Nest with me. That’s what makes it exciting. The book is over but the conversations have just begun.

Both novels are about boys on internal and external quests. Both novels utilize language beautifully and appeal to readers on many levels. Both novels are page-turners. Admittedly, The Nest often had me peeking a few pages ahead to see if anyone was going to get stung or abducted or killed. Since I’ve already touted the awesomeness of Selznick’s illustrations, I’ll say that in The Nest, Jon Klassen’s eerie images aptly mirror the moody ambience of Oppel’s prose.

And then there’s this. Toward the end of The Marvels, when Joseph realizes that his uncle has invented the multi-generation theater family that he so believed in, he shouts angrily at him, “Stories aren’t the same as facts!

To which Albert pauses and then says, “No, but they can both be true.”

As someone who has spent her life with one foot in the real world and one foot submerged in fiction, I found this dialogue pure magic. These lines, to me, embody why we tell stories and listen to stories and where we go in our heads when we do these things. While The Nest had me on the edge of my chair, The Marvels transported me to different chairs in different rooms in different eras. And so…the winner of this round is The Marvels.

—  Carolyn Mackler

What a great reason for The Marvels to win, and what a beautiful portrayal of the stories Selznick gives us. Now, I read The Marvels last June, so it’s a shame I don’t remember the specifics, but now that Mackler mentions it, that ending was stunning, transitioning back to images and a sort of dream state. I do think The Marvels is the more versatile book, offering a wealth of aesthetic pleasure, pathos, and love. The Nest brings another anxious fantasy world to life: something that could just be a dream is very real and scary. “Creepy and awesome” indeed (shoutout to Mackler’s 11 year old son). That word, though, awesome, applies to both books easily. We need to have a kind of shock and awe at our capacity to tell ourselves stories, something we see in Uncle Albert’s loneliness, Steven’s need to reassure himself, and in ourselves, everyday.

– Kid Commentator RGN

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  1. Eric Carpenter says:

    For the third day in a row I’ve been disappointed with the judges’ decisions. Luckily I like each of tomorrow’s books equally…

    • Just thought I’d respond, since for the third day in a row I’ve been happy with the judges’ decisions. Truth is, what I love about SLJBOB is the excellent writing of the reviews and how I revisit each book in just reading the judge and kid commentator responses. Thank-you SLJ and Monica for making the best March ever.

  2. I loved both of these books to pieces. I think Judge Mackler did a good job highlighting both books’ merits and found a fair way to decide the winner. It’s a tough choice but I think I would have done the same just because I was so fascinated by the story of that museum and there were so many characters that I was attached to in Marvels whereas I only felt like we got to know Steve well in Nest. It always comes down to the characters for me.

  3. Other Meredith says:

    I probably would have gone with Nest. Not that the Marvels isn’t great, but it didn’t totally work for me. Much like the character of Joseph, I felt a little bit cheated by how it all came together (or didn’t) in the end. Plus, I love The Nest a whole heck of a lot. It speaks to my inner child that wants to get the stuffing scared out of her.

  4. Sara Ralph says:

    I’ve been thrilled, if somewhat surprised, by the decisions! Go team Middle Grade!

  5. Paige Ysteboe says:

    I loved both books, but I loved The Marvels just a wee bit more. I think Judge Macker did a a very nice job with her analysis. With the exception of missing The Hired Girl (please let it arise from the dead), I am quite happy with the books that are left.

  6. Both these are on my ever-growing “To Read” list, and this article only made me want to read them all the more.

    My only concern is that The Marvels will be going up against Nimona. I don’t envy judge Mariko Tamaki that decision (but I hope Nimona wins!)

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