The Marvels is not an illustrated novel, but a novel told in words and pictures. It begins with roughly 400 pages of pictures, then there are 200 pages of text, followed by another 50 pages of pictures. Because visual narratives are constructed in our minds very differently from text narratives, the experience of reading the story is affected by the use of words and pictures. This fascinates me and is at the heart of what lead me to experiment with visual storytelling in The Marvels, as well as its predecessors, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.

When we read, pictures often form automatically in our minds. We construct visual images of characters and locations based partly on the actual text, and partly on our own experiences, our own biases, our own dreams. This translation from words to images in our mind occurs unbidden.

But looking at visual narratives does something different. It’s possible for a visual story to advance without making an equivalent automatic translation to words. We might look at a drawing of a character’s face and understand that the character is sad without thinking (or hearing in our minds) the word “sad”. Visual understanding can transcend language. We can understand the idea of sadness without having to label it with a word. And of course, like silent movies, pictures don’t need to be translated for people who speak different languages.

If we skim a page of text, details can be missed and plot points overlooked. Yet we know that, when faced with a page of text, we need to start in the upper left-hand corner and work across the page, word by word, to understand it, and then move downward to the next line until we reach the bottom right corner of the page. To fully comprehend the story, we have to take in every letter; that is part of the deal we make as readers with the writer. We know that just looking at a page of text won’t give us the story.

Part of a dream sequence at the end of part one of The Marvels.
Part of a dream sequence in Selznick’s visual novel The Marvels. Illustration: Brian Selznick

Just as when we read a text too quickly, there can be problems if we don’t take the time to look at drawings carefully. But unlike with a story told only through a block of text, a viewer can look at a drawing and feel as if they instantly comprehend the subject. One look at a drawing can give you a huge amount of information. For instance, a drawing in The Marvels of a girl tied to the mast of a ship in the middle of a storm at sea can be understood in moments. All that information can even seem as if it was imparted in a single glance, like a lightning bolt. Then with a feeling of comprehension, the viewer might move on to the next drawing.

But has the drawing really been understood? Depending on the complexity of the story, rushing through the images will leave the reader feeling as confused as if they were rushing through text. Spending time with the drawing, looking at all the details , is essential. This kind of “reading” will hopefully reveal information and nuances that make the story and characters more easily understood and more deeply remembered.

The feeling of a story told in pictures is also distinct from one told with words. Some readers of The Invention of Hugo Cabret told me the picture sections of the book seemed quieter to them than the text sections because they could “hear” the text sections in their minds as they read. The pictures had no such accompanying noise, even as the narrative moved forward. Hugo is like a relay race, with the narrative being handed off between the words and the pictures, creating alternating moments of silence. These silences worked well in a story that was partly about silent movies. My hope was that, by the end of the book, the reader wouldn’t remember what parts of the story had been told in words and what part in pictures. My goal was for the totality of the story to exist somewhere between the two.

This idea of visual silence intrigued me, and in my next book Wonderstruck, I tried to use it purposefully. I created two separate narratives set 50 years apart that weave together, one in text and another in pictures. We eventually discover the main character in the picture story, Rose, was born deaf, and my hope was that the reader might experience her story in a way that parallels her own experience. The silence of the pictures is a metaphor for the silence of her world.

In The Marvels (inspired in part by the Dennis Severs’ House in London) I once again created two stories, although they don’t weave together like the ones in Wonderstruck. The picture story, which covers five generations of a family, unfolds first across roughly 400 pages, and then at a climactic moment the drawings stop and we find ourselves jumping ahead 90 years into a story told entirely in words. Initially, the second story seems to be separate from the first, but we discover a possible connection and we remember the drawings – they become part of the second narrative in our minds.

The Marvels was inspired in part by the Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, home to a family of Huguenot silk weavers from 1724 to the start of the 20th century
The Marvels was partly inspired by the Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, home to a family of Huguenot silk weavers from 1724 to the start of the 20th century. Illustration: Brian Selznick

Books are a technology, but we don’t usually think of them that way. They are made up of simple parts: covers and pages and thread and glue. I love how adaptable this simple apparatus can be, and how physical it is. The paper is in our hands. We are touching it and turning it. And when we turn the page, we discover a magic trick, because we never know what we’re going to find on the other side.

“A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images,” my friend Remy Charlip, the great illustrator, wrote in an essay called A Page Is a Door, “but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.”

When you turn the page, pictures can become story, as in Hugo, or they can become experience, as in Wonderstruck, or they can even become memory, as in The Marvels. This is why I love using pictures to tell stories in books. Anything is possible, and there are always new things to discover when you turn the page.

• The Marvels is published by Scholastic at £16.99 and is available at the Guardian bookshop for £12.99. The Guardian children’s fiction prize will be awarded on 17 November.

Brian Selznick

The GuardianTramp

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