Ransom Riggs’s debut novel centers around Jacob Portman, a 16-year old boy, who, upon his grandfather’s death and the old man’s cryptic final statements, travels to a Welsh island in search of the story behind his grandfather’s life. Once there, Jacob discovers the orphanage where so many of Grandpa Portman’s stories were set; however, Jacob quickly realizes that the stories and characters from his grandfather’s stories are both more real and more present than he could ever have imagined. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is ultimately the story of one boy’s attempt to come to grips with himself, his history, and his future. Riggs brilliantly supplements the narrative with antiquated or passé photographs that, instead of derailing the story or appearing gimmicky, perfectly accentuate the first-person telling.
I picked this book up without a whole lot of preparation or research; I’d seen a few reports that praised the form (Oh my! Pictures and text together in print! What new-fangled demon machine is this!?) or called it ‘quirky’ or some other vaguely condescending word, but I needed something to review and didn’t have anything else I really wanted to read, so I grabbed it. And I’m really really glad I did. I finished the book this morning and I’ve been thinking all day about how to describe exactly why I liked it, and this is ultimately what I have for you: It’s the story of a young boy desperately trying to find himself and it’s the story of kids who don’t belong and it’s the story of what love feels like when you’re 16 and it’s the story of what family might really mean. Riggs’s book is all of those things and more.
I was initially worried when I realized that Miss Peregrine’s Home is actually full of children with abilities (hence their peculiarity); I thought this might be a bad rehashing of Dr. Xavier’s School and the whole X-Men paradigm, but Riggs treads the ground lightly and thoughtfully here, and it’s quickly made evident that the author understands what makes these kinds of stories (stories about people who are physically, somatically different) compelling and important is that they show us how intrinsically different we all feel. And honestly, there’s no better age to draw on for this kind of stuff than 16. So often I feel frustrated by books that want to use the young age of their narrators only when its convenient (this kid is an emotional 14-year old here because I need him to be stubborn and therefore give me the plot movement I need to keep this thing going, but later on he’s going to demonstrate an amazingly high level of intellect and maturity for a 14-year old so that the reader can adore him and I can get myself out of this awful narrative corner I’ve somehow managed to create. What? It totally makes sense.). Happily, Riggs doesn’t do this kind of thing, and for anyone who has ever been in that awkward twilight land between the total immaturity of the early teens and the burgeoning responsibility and maturity of the later teens, Jacob’s story, and Riggs’s treatment of it, will ring true in an achingly beautiful kind of way.
I suppose it would probably make sense to address the sprinkling of photos throughout the book, but I really don’t want to. The photos do what they’re meant to do, in my mind, which is to become a part of the story so seamlessly that, like the pieces of text on the page, they become part of the colorful tapestry being put together in your head. I find, when I’m in the midst of a great novel, I tend to forget that I’m reading; the words are something that I move through during the experience of the narrative. The book loses its tangibility and concreteness. In Riggs’s novel, the pictures become part of that process, and so it makes as much sense to talk about them as it does to dwell on the number of periods or the average syllable count per chapter; those things are pieces that do the work of painting the picture, and if the picture is good enough and the machines have really done their job, you tend to forget that the canvas, paint, or frame is even there, not to mention the outside world.
Riggs has already announced his intention to write a sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I can promise that I will eat that thing up the day it appears. It’s been a little while since I enjoyed a book as thoroughly and completely as I did this one, and I’m happy to give it 5 enormous slices of lasagna. Grab this one and read it late into the night; you won’t regret it.