Author: Ransom Riggs
Publisher: Quirk Books
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of so-called “young adult fiction”. And I’ve found that you can usually place the books in this genre into one of three categories. The first contains books that are written solely for a younger audience. While they may have an interesting structure and some intriguing ideas, the language and themes will be somewhat lacking, preventing older teens and adults from really becoming engrossed enough in the story despite the young adult label, The Maze Runner series being an example. While this series has an interesting concept, the language is written in a way that almost censors the story for its reader, and the characters aren’t as layered as they could be. The second category is best represented by the Harry Potter series. These books (or series of books) tend to start off geared towards a younger audience, but slowly grow into something that adults can also enjoy and relate to by introducing darker subject matter and more mature elements. I first read the first Potter novel when I was nine years old (over sixteen years ago, where has the time gone?!?) and upon rereading it last year, I was struck at how the writing and themes had a much more childish feel to them than the later installments did. Finally, I’ve found the third category to contain those books which have instant appeal to both younger and older audiences; adults will enjoy the more mature storytelling while younger readers will appreciate a book that doesn’t sugar coat the harshness of the world being depicted and treats them as a grownup capable of engaging with such material. The Hunger Games series, with its harrowing main premise of children killing children, as well as some of its unpleasant back story elements, is a prime example.
Recently, I finished reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel by American author Ransom Riggs, which quickly became a New York Times best-seller after its release in 2011. I would have to say, that I think it belongs in the third category of young adult fiction, as the maturity of its writing and honesty of some it’s more mature themes means that it has huge crossover appeal. Like a lot of books nowadays, I first heard about it when I saw a poster for its soon to be released film adaptation at my local cinema. The film has an incredible lineup of actors attached to it including Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Green, Judy Dench and Chris O’Dowd, and Tim Burton served as director, so I was immediately intrigued by it, and decided to find out more about it. With its X-Men meets time travel meets World War 2 storyline, as well as its use of vintage photographs to enrich the story, it sounded like an interesting read.
The story is told from the point of view of Jacob, a 16-year-old heir to a pharmaceutical empire he has no love for. Jacob’s parents are flaky at best; his mother invites people over to celebrate their pet birds birthday, while his father volunteers at a bird sanctuary in an attempt to write books on Ornithology, all of which he never gets around to finishing. Though his parents may be too wrapped up in themselves to pay much attention to him, Jacob has a strong bond with his eccentric grandfather Abraham, who tells him stories of his youth in which he spent some time at an orphanage for what he describes as “peculiar” children during World War 2 in the 1940’s. He also shows Jacob some old photographs of these supposed peculiar children and the house they lived in. Jacob doesn’t believe him at first, thinking the stories are just the ramblings of an old man, but when his grandfather is murdered by an unexplained entity, Jacob begins to realise there may be more truth to the stories than he first thought. Unable to process his grief effectively, Jacobs parents arrange for him to see a psychiatrist, who suggests that visiting the orphanage on the island where his grandfather once lived might give him some closure. Jacob journeys to the island off the coast of Wales to help him unlock the secrets of his grandfathers past and stop whatever killed him before it strikes again.
There are a number of things I enjoyed about this book. I loved the mature way in which it was written. Riggs treats younger readers as equals, and through Jacob, delves into some mature subject matter, from the feeling of isolation, to the perception of grief and ways of dealing with mental health, as well as the importance of finding and embracing ones true self. I also loved how the story wasn’t predictable and thus it was a joy to read. It encouraged you to keep going, as you were genuinely discovering more things, rather than checking them off a preconceived list in your mind. The only fault I have in the story telling is the books ending, as it’s too abrupt. Without giving anything away, it would have been nice to see the characters arrive where they were going and then finish it there to whet the appetite for book 2. As it stands, Riggs gives the story a shot of adrenaline in its final act, before it slams to a close to quickly. But it’s a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. I also loved the idea of incorporating real life vintage photographs into the book to help tell the story and introduce the characters. Riggs is a self-professed collector of vintage photographs and also sought donations from other collectors to add to the book. All-in-all, the book has over forty vivid and sometimes haunting photos to explore. I do have one small criticism though; the odd time a photo doesn’t really gel as well into the narrative as some of the others, and it feels like it was forced into being there. But this doesn’t happen very often, and perhaps could just be me nitpicking. You be the judge. Overall I loved the idea as I thought it was unique and really helped steep you in the story and feel like you were actually reading about living, breathing people with superpowers in the 1940’s during World War 2.
Jacob as a character has maturity beyond his age, and he is equal parts witty and relatable (who among us hasn’t felt disconnected from everyone we know at some point, like we didn’t belong, especially in our teenage years? And many will of course relate to the loss of a loved one, especially if you’ve felt that person is the only one you had a true connection with). Asa Butterfield is portraying him in the film and I think it’s a good choice. He fits the physical description of Jacob and the fact that he is a little older than the character (he’s 19) should work nicely when bringing the wise beyond his years Jacob to life. He has the makings of a fine actor and always appears on the cusp of securing that role that will elevate him to the Hollywood big leagues, but just falling short. Perhaps this will be the role that makes him a household name. I also enjoyed the indomitable Miss Peregrine, because she is quite a mysterious character with many layers to her. And while she serves as overseer and protector of the children in her care, I think I got a vibe from her that she might not be the eternally good character that she seems to be, and that she’s hiding something big. I can’t really put my finger on why I felt that way, but I’m looking forward to reading the sequels to see if I was right to be wary of her. Eva Green will be playing her in the cinematic release and I couldn’t think of an actress more perfect for the role, due to her work as the mysterious and composed Vanessa Ives in the TV series Penny Dreadful, and the fact that she fits the physical description of Miss Peregrine so well.
As for the children that inhabit Miss Peregrine’s orphanage, the vintage picture aspect of the story makes it all the more interesting being introduced to them and discovering their powers. I won’t give away too much and spoil the surprises of meeting all these characters, but two I really enjoyed were Emma and Millard. Emma is feisty and independent and has the ability to conjure fire at will. She also contributes to the emotional heart of the story, as she bares a connection to Jacob’s grandfather that creates an interesting dynamic between her and Jacob. I also really enjoyed the always invisible Millard, as the other characters can’t see him and they (along with the reader) don’t always know he is present until he speaks, adding to some of the humorous sections of the book. As for the rest of the super kids, I’ll leave it to you to discover them, as I really enjoyed meeting them and finding out their various skills and looking at the various photographs that introduced them. And there is definitely more to them than meets the eye.
I really enjoyed this strong debut from Ransom Riggs. It’s an interesting premise for a story that’s bolstered by the use of the vintage photographs that give it a unique feel when compared with its contemporaries. The characters are all well drawn, the writing is excellent, and apart from a few photos not syncing as well as others do with the narrative and abrupt ending, I can’t find much faults. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series and hope to catch the film when it’s released. I hope it lives up to the book, but in my experience, the book is usually always better. I’ve posted the trailers below in case you have read the book but haven’t yet caught them, or if you are interested in reading the book and what to know what you’re getting yourself into (although if you would like to go into the series knowing nothing, I’d suggest giving them a miss).
Happy Reading 🙂