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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

October 24, 2011

The gimmick of Ransom Riggs’ novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is that the story has been written to explain a series of old photographs. The cover photo appears to be a girl of five or six levitating in a 1920’s outfit; she appears in the story as Olive, a “peculiar” girl who can float. Her friends are invisible, super-strong, a minor-league necromancer (he mostly uses animal hearts to animate clay figures), and a girl who can make balls of fire with her hands. They live in a “time loop” in 1940, where the humans around them do the same thing they did on the original day. As Ana observes, “it’s Groundhog Day meets the X-Men.”

The “peculiar” children have always been with us, Miss Peregrine explains to the main character, Jacob:
“There was a time when we could mix openly with common folk. In some corners of the world we were regarded as shamans and mystics, consulted in times of trouble….But the larger world turned against us long ago.”
Miss Peregrine herself is, as her name indicates, a bird. And in this world, “birds…are time travelers.”

The fantastic stories Jacob’s grandfather told him all turn out to be true, including that he has spent his life fighting monsters that only he can see. When Miss Peregrine explains the grandfather’s life’s work to Jacob, it’s a high point of the story, but the air went out of it like an old balloon when I got to the end of the chapter and Jacob thinks “about all the long hunting trips Grandpa Portman used to go on. My family had a picture of him taken during one of these, though I don’t know who took it or when since he almost always went alone. But when I was a kid I thought it was the funniest thing because, in the picture, he’s wearing a suit.”
This is, of course, the lead-in to a photo. The lead-ins get more and more contrived as the novel goes on.

The most contrived bit has to do with Jacob’s jeans and t-shirts appearing strange to one of the children who lives in 1940 and is described as having gone “completely overboard: top hat, cane, monocle—the works.” There’s an entire paragraph about why he dresses this way, merely as an excuse to include a photograph of a little boy dressed like that.

The bad guys in the novel are formerly “peculiar” people who dreamed “of mastering time without being mastered by death” which as we all know, is impossible; they tried it and became monsters. A couple of these bad guys are described to fit two old photos in which one of the people appears to have blank (scary) eyes. One is a Santa, as if it’s from Creepy Santa Photos.

Though the novel builds towards Jacob’s confrontation with one of the monsters, it is not a final victory, and the last photo is of Jacob and some of the “peculiars” sailing off towards other adventures.

I enjoyed this one well enough, and even though I don’t care for the way the text is contrived to fit with the photos, I do like what Jodie said about them: “It’s strange and a little unnerving to see a photograph of a child in an old-fashioned setting, or dress, because picture of children are typically a reminder of youth, a symbol of eternal life and by association the constant reinvention of modernity. The inclusion of these photographs, which attach the patina of history to small children, indicates unsettling associations between children and aging, or innocence and darkness.”  I read the book partly because Jodie called my attention to the fact that the author went to Kenyon, where I try to make my graduate degree pay.

The novel is being touted as a Halloween read, with its hints of the supernatural, necromancy, and monsters. Perhaps those of you who like picture books and graphic novels will find it even more fascinating than I did.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 6:42 am

    It sounds like this book is clever but may be a little too contrived at times. I think I’d still like to give it a go.

    • October 25, 2011 8:25 am

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it when you get around to reading it.

  2. October 24, 2011 7:41 am

    This reminds me of a writing assignment I had in fifth grade. I found my school notebook for creative writing the other day, and since AJ is currently in fifth grade, we looked at it. Our teacher had told us to pick a certain number of images and write a story about them. I had cut pictures out of a magazine, mostly photos of old daguerreotypes, etc, and written a long serialization. AJ was fascinated and started working on one of his own. My own story petered out. The gimmick gave it a great start, but was hard to maintain as I struggled to keep the photos integrated when the story wanted to go its own way. It sounds like that may have been a problem here as well.

    • October 25, 2011 8:26 am

      Really, the story was pretty ingeniously crafted around the photos. It was just that I could see that. I like art that appears effortless.

      • October 8, 2016 9:29 pm

        Jeanne–“what is written without effort is generally read without pleasure”, but the bar is pretty high when you expect the appearance of effortlessness to spur your reading pleasure! 😉

        The more you know about well-constructed writing, the harder an author will have to work to fool you into believing the writing was effortless. No?

        (I hope you can hear affectionate laughter here. I am with you in not wanting to see the seams in authors’ works, as they disturb my suspension of disbelief. Your high bar makes your recommended books all the more interesting to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so generously. I seek out a book or two per year from your blog, to read on my own.)

        • October 9, 2016 8:18 am

          It’s true about how hard authors have to work to make my reading effortless. And thank you for quoting Samuel Johnson!

  3. October 24, 2011 7:44 am

    As I told Jodie I think I’ll wait some time before I read this one so that I’m not influenced by my expectations. It does sound like the kind of thing that could appeal to me, though.

    • October 25, 2011 8:31 am

      I do think it’s more for those who are more interested in the visual than I am. Which is most of the world’s population.

  4. PAJ permalink
    October 24, 2011 8:47 am

    Who would suspect that you’re a fan of the Scary Santa Photo site? A wonderful time waster.

    • October 25, 2011 8:37 am

      I am always mildly amused by such sites, and mildly irritated that someone is making much fun of people who I’ll bet mostly don’t have the intentions they’re captioned with.

  5. freshhell permalink
    October 24, 2011 9:09 am

    Hmmm. Dusty might like this? Dunno. It does sound a bit too “worked” for my tastes but if I run across it, I might flip through it.

    • October 25, 2011 8:38 am

      I can see it as a YA book. The hero is supposedly 15 or 16, although he acts a bit younger than that.

  6. October 24, 2011 9:15 am

    Wish I’d had this novel when I was taking “A History of Childhood”

  7. October 24, 2011 11:46 am

    I’ve heard a lot about this book, and I admit I’m really drawn in by the title and the front cover. But I didn’t realize the book centered so much around photographs and I can see why it would seem contrived. Kind of like a graphic novel, but not quite as successful as one could be. I think, like others mentioned above, I’ll wait for this one.

    • October 25, 2011 8:39 am

      It is such a good title, isn’t it? I like that the birds, including Miss Peregrine, are time travelers.

  8. October 24, 2011 11:57 am

    I’ve been curious about this book. I’ve seen some of the photos and I must admit they creep me out.

    • October 25, 2011 8:40 am

      You sound like the ideal audience for this book. I’ll be interested in your reactions.

  9. trapunto permalink
    October 24, 2011 1:15 pm

    I scared myself royally once, browsing through the new book collection of a public library and finding a collection of spiritualist photography. Found black and white images are so strong it would be hard for them not to overpower the text. I’d be more impressed to hear someone had carried off the exact same concept without showing you the photographic evidence.

    • October 25, 2011 8:42 am

      That would be impressive, wouldn’t it? I am a fan of the Victorian fairy photographs; Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy book was a big favorite at my house for a long time.

  10. October 24, 2011 8:14 pm

    Ugh, I desperately want someone to manage to do a book-with-pictures where the pictures supplement the words in a fluid, easy, non-forced way. I had such high hopes for The Invention of Hugo Cabret but ended up feeling let down by the story, and this sounds like it is just the same if not worse in that respect. I want something like what David Almond and Dave McKean do together, except longer and more!

    • October 25, 2011 8:44 am

      See, I’m not a fan of any of those. I haven’t even skimmed through Hugo Cabret. But you do remind me that I loved Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.

  11. October 25, 2011 2:00 pm

    It sounds like you had a similar reaction to this one that I did. I enjoyed it, but I felt like the book depended to heavily on the photos in some parts. The plot was actually structured around them or characters were included purely to fit in one more photo.

    • October 26, 2011 7:01 am

      I did feel like some characters (like the boy with the hat and monocle) were included so the photo could be.

  12. Jenny permalink
    October 25, 2011 2:48 pm

    I read the first few chapters of this online and had a similar reaction: fun, but not fun enough. I didn’t pursue the whole thing. (I believe I also thought the writing was a bit subpar.) I think I’d like to see a book where the photos were actual illustrations, not Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on. It had the feeling of a writing exercise that had burgeoned out of its composition book.

    • October 26, 2011 7:03 am

      I wonder if the young narrator was a bit of a handicap in this respect, because it’s actually a pretty good story. Maybe it needs an adult to tell it. That would help the author rid himself of the “my grandfather had this mysterious photo and this is how I’ve made sense of it” theme that gets old.

  13. November 7, 2011 5:32 am

    I tried this one and couldn’t deal w the writing style…I think I gave up after hearing about how his friend always kicked his car door shut because ‘blah blah blah.’ I’m not a fan of over-explication.

  14. November 7, 2011 1:35 pm

    I thought some of what you call “over-explication” was because of the young narrator, at first. Now I’m not so sure.

  15. November 17, 2011 5:17 pm

    I just finished reading this a couple days ago, and it was way too contrived for me too, as if it was a round robin story with pictures instead of multiple authors.

    • November 18, 2011 7:37 am

      That’s a good way to put it. I love writing round robin stories, but have no illusions that others who didn’t participate will want to read them!

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