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Bookshelf: Brian Selznick's 'The Marvels' and other novels for young readers

"The Marvels" by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, September 2015) Photo Credit: Scholastic

"You either see it or you don't."

That epigram opens and appears throughout "The Marvels" (Scholastic, $32.99, age 10 and up), Brian Selznick's mysterious, inventive novel aimed at young adults but sure to intrigue readers of any age. Once again, Selznick showcases the cinematic style and blend of prose and pictures that he pioneered with "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," a 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and the basis for the Oscar-winning film "Hugo."

In "Wonderstruck" (2011), Selznick, who illustrates his books in graphite pencil, experimented with a dual narrative, but "The Marvels" is his most innovative use of the form to date. The sweeping tale ranges across time and space to tell an intricate story within a story.

Selznick's repeating aphorism entices readers to peer closely at the 390 pages of pictures that compose the first part of the book, which begins with a shipwreck and follows a family of English actors from 1766 to 1900. In the second part, a seemingly unrelated narrative set in 1990, 13-year-old Joseph Jervis wonders what he must be overlooking. Why does his uncle live like someone from the late 1800s? And why is his London home full of ghostly voices? Readers can hunt for clues, reexamine the illustrations, construct and deconstruct narratives and finally come to a conclusion at once satisfying and strange.

One does not read a Selznick novel so much as inhabit it. His figures seem to have weight and solidity, sculpted through crosshatching and meticulous shading. His places are busy with turbulent waves, crowded streets and Victorian furniture. Even the smallest details -- a curtain's fold, the eye of a dog -- are carefully rendered. And the whole is animated by the page turn: The characters seem to move across space and time as the reader travels through the book. Rich with "miracles and sadness," a bookmaking tour de force, this novel is as full of marvels as its title suggests.

Jenny Han captures the sweet intensity of first love and the complexities of family life in "P.S. I Still Love You" (Simon & Schuster, $17.99, age 12 and up), the charming sequel to her popular young-adult novel "To All the Boys I Loved Before." Lara Jean Song Covey now has a boyfriend: cute, confident Peter Kavinsky. They joke, kiss and hang out together, but Peter's worldly ex-girlfriend (and Lara Jean's frenemy) still seems to have a hold on him. Sound complicated? Add the handsome grandson of an elderly friend, include a neighbor with an eye on Lara Jean's widowed father and enjoy all the romantic mishaps that ensue.

Han skillfully conveys the zeitgeist of the contemporary public high school, with teens dating across culture and race. Refreshingly, difference is no easy plot point here; instead, the author weaves in details of Lara Jean's Korean heritage and interests (baking, scrapbooking) to create a vivid, endearing protagonist.

Han also addresses today's double standard. After an incident of slut-shaming, Lara Jean reflects: "Boys will be boys, but girls are supposed to be careful: of our bodies, of our futures, of all the ways people judge us." The narrative swerves enough to thrillingly roughen the course of love, and the characters are so memorable that readers will yearn for a third book -- perhaps even a middle-grade tale starring Lara Jean's lively younger sister, Kitty.

The shabby amusement-park setting of author and illustrator Lane Smith's "Return to Augie Hobble" (Roaring Brook, $16.99, ages 8-12) should tip readers off to the wordplay, upended conventions and plot shenanigans in store. For example, there's a playground called "Lord of the Swings." As he works a summer custodial job at Fairy Tale Place, narrator Augie Hobble contends not only with the usual muscle-bound bullies but also with werewolves, federal agents, a clairvoyant food vendor and a creative arts project that he must do over or fail. Into this lively, pun-rich narrative, Smith, a two-time Caldecott honoree, layers Augie's drawings, comics and haphazard ideas for that school project. Finally, in a panicked attempt to fulfill the assignment, Augie turns in some odd poetry from his sketchbook -- and sets in motion events that prove transformative, literally and figuratively. Augie and his best friend, Britt, are two smart, unpopular kids trying to survive middle school, and their friendship provides entertaining repartee and emotional depth to this fantastical novel. Like the late comic master Terry Pratchett, Smith knows how to make profound points lightly as he holds a fun-house mirror to the larger world.

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