Brian Selznick
Friday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m., $5
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh
3313 Wade Ave., Raleigh

Brian Selznick’s books for children are hard to define. They combine long, wordless illustrated sequences with equally long chunks of prose. They jump between the past and present, crafting mysteries that wind up involving real history and historical figures, but with a modern attitude. There’s a darkness and maturity to them that should go over most kids’ heads, but they’re beloved by elementary and middle-school children.

Selznick’s latest book, The Marvels, which he’s promoting tonight at a Quail Ridge Books-sponsored talk at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, is his most experimental work yet. It opens with 200 pages of dialogue-free pictures that cover 150 years in the life of a theatrical dynasty, only to end on a cliffhanger that takes us to 1990 and a character who seems disconnected from the previous action. The resultant tale touches on everything from such real-life locations as the time-frozen Dennis Severs’ House to issues of mortality and the nature of storytelling.

Selznick first made a splash with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a tale of an orphan in a Paris train station that was adapted by Martin Scorsese into the Oscar-winning film Hugo. It set the tone for Selznick’s future novels, combining prose and pictures, history and fiction, fantasy and reality. He followed it with Wonderstruck, setting its picture sequences in a past timeline dealing with two sets of characters who were deaf—and making the reader experience information the way the deaf characters would, visually.

The Marvels goes even further, with a retro-style design, gilded pages and even a delightful old-school book trailer, but it still feels fresh. There’s a depiction of older gay characters that is sympathetic but not maudlin, and a twist toward the end that throws the reader’s whole perception of what they’ve just experienced into question. Still, like Selznick’s other books, The Marvels is an old-fashioned tale of a young but intrepid child adrift in the world, seeking guidance from adults whose own adventures are in the distant past.

It’s hard to say exactly what Selznick’s books are—novels? Picture books? Graphic novels? They’re something new and extraordinary, created from the stuff of history. They are also gentle introductions to tragedy, showing young readers what has been lost in the past but still providing hope for the future, as that past is reclaimed. While Selznick is in town, take the chance to find out how he made them, or pick up a copy to experience his worlds for yourself.