Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

“I don't mean to be rude' I said, 'but what are you people?'
'We're peculiar,' he replied, sounding a bit puzzled. 'Aren't you?’
'I don't know. I don't think so.'
'That's a shame.”

Ransom Rigg's Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was a New York Times best-seller,

reaching the #1 spot on the Children's Chapter Books list during its 90 week run. The book has sold 15 million copies, and the graphic novel adaptation checked in with a 50,000 copy first printing. A movie is in the works from 20th Century Fox (Tim Burton is the director; he is a good fit for this story). Hollow City, the 2014 second installment in the trilogy, had a 500,000 printing order for its release.

Mr. Riggs notes on his website that this book was ”born out of my love for vintage photography and bizarro stories.” It’s a cleverly told story built around a multitude of very unusual photographs he found in different vintage collections. I often don't like how pictures shape my imagination when reading a story, but in this case I enjoyed it quite a bit. Seeing the next picture - and knowing it was an actual, historical photograph - kept me engaged almost as much as the story.


Jacob grew up listening to his Grandpa’s stories about mysterious and, well, peculiar people. They were entertaining until his Grandpa started talking about the monsters stalking him. Jacob assumed he was going mad, but when he encounters one of the monsters after finding his grandfather dead, he realizes more is going on than he thought.

His grandfather’s cryptic last words send him and his father to Wales. Jacob’s snooping eventually leads him to a decrepit, apparently abandoned house. Through an odd series of events, he discovers that what appears to be a dead end in pursuing the reality of his Grandfather’s tales is actually Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Jacob just needs to travel through a portal in a local cairn in order to travel back in time to 1940, the day before the house is destroyed by a bomb during World War II. Once he arrives, he finds that his grandfather’s stories are real. There are Peculiar Children who can make fire, fly, become invisible, and exert tremendous strength. There are also unusual people, strange tears in the fabric of reality, and a desire for love, family and purpose that transcends times and worlds.

He also discovers the horrors that stalk his new friends. Hollowgasts and their monstrous wights want to kill the Peculiar Children, capture Miss Peregrine and the other leaders who are able to control time, and renew a once-failed quest for immortality that will destroy both worlds.

"The story itself, though it takes some decidedly fantastical turns, has one foot firmly rooted in history. I’m a firm believer that the real world is more dramatic than any story we can make up about it, and when writing I try to draw upon real events whenever I can. The experience of European Jews during World War II is central to the book, as is that of British civilians living under the terrifying threat of German bombing raids. Though the world of the peculiar children is fantasy, it exists alongside and frequently intersects with our own."

One of the things I look for when reading popular stories is the reason for the story’s success. What is it that has captured the imagination of readers? What hopes or fears of their own do they see represented in the characters or situations? Nestled inside of this peculiar plot are three fundamentally important aspects of everyone's life: family, friendship, and hope.


Jacob’s relationship with his dad is pretty strained. His dad’s got issues, and Jacob’s often deceptive and disrespectful as his adventures in Wales get increasingly complicated. Miss Peregrine says to him of his parents, “They may love you, but they’ll never understand.“ That’s what the Home offers: understanding. The children are all Peculiar. Who are they to judge the eccentricities of Jacob? It struck me that Miss Peregrine’s home offers what so many kids want – a place to belong, place where they are accepted as they are; a place where they are given time, instruction and boundaries in which they can learn to flourish not in spite of their peculiarities, but because of them. In other words, it offers what their homes should have.


When Jacob discovers his new friends, he finds a kindred spirit among others who have been misunderstood. They are the marginalized, the outcasts, the ones who live on the fringe of society because people are afraid or don’t understand. One of them notes, “When someone won't let you in, eventually you stop knocking.”  They’ve all been there.  They have found a home with Ms. Peregrine, but not in the world at large. While they don’t all take to Jacob at first, eventually they embrace him – and why wouldn’t they? They know what it’s like to feel alone. They offer what we all long for – a community of people who know each other's strengths and weaknesses, refuse to walk away when the going gets tough, and welcome others with love and acceptance. 

Mr. Riggs noted in an interview, "In many ways, Miss Peregrine is a story about tolerance. The peculiar children are people who’ve been shunned, persecuted and forced into hiding because of their differentness—but it is also this differentness that enables them."  I expect to see any number of modern parallels claimed by fans of the series: bullying, LGBT discrimination, racism, etc. To whatever degree the parallel is claimed, it will reflect the reader's perspective, not the author's focus on a particular issue (at least that I have found). 


A key theme throughout the book revolved around a sense that there was something more to life than just the hard reality in front of them. They have a book of fairy tales that brings comfort because the stories might, in fact, be more true than they realize (Hollow City reveals that they are). Several characters pray for each other, and the request is treated seriously. One of the Peculiar friends occasionally comes back to life thanks to the power of one of the other Peculiars to animate dead objects. Another observes, “It’s a cruel thing, waking Victor. He likes it where he is…whenever we rouse him for a chat he seems in a dreadful hurry to get back.”

However, this idea that there is more to life wasn’t just about the religious or supernatural. It was about how the life we have contains more than we realize. In spite of Jacob’s tense (and at times blatantly disobedient) relationship with his father, he arrives at an interesting conclusion by the end of the book:
“I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was. Likewise, I never imagined that home might be something I would miss.”

In addition to my accolades, I must add that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children could have been improved. Jacob’s character was very disrespectful to his father with no real consequence; a number of crude conversations and risqué situations were unnecessary; there was an odd romantic connection between Jacob, who is sixteen, and Emma, who is very old because of being stuck in the time loop (she was in love with his grandfather); the ‘kids who are young but are really adult on the inside’ plot line concerns me not because of this story in particular, but because I think that mindset increasingly permeates real life.*

However, the series is unfolding, and these things may well work themselves out in the end. Overall, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is an inventive, engaging story that reflects honestly on our lives while championing the idea that reality is greater, deeper, more meaningful and more extraordinary than we often realize.


*“Age is just a number” means one thing when thirty and forty somethings say it in reference to each other; it means quite another when it’s an excuse to pretend children are older than they are.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this review. I paged through this book at Barnes and Noble a while ago and thought it looked quite interesting. I might have to grab it from the library sometime.