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Check It Out

Courier Article by Michael Cherry
Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Home for Peculiar Children

The first things you'll notice when you pick up Ransom Riggs's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" are the strange photographs of children which cover the dust jacket and accompany the text. These images wouldn't be so mysterious had they not depicted levitating girls, a young boy swarming with bees, freakish twins, contortionists and a range of vintage photographs meant to elicit fear, wonder and perhaps trigger nightmares.

The debut novel by Riggs is about the peculiar children in these photographs taken from the personal archives of 10 collectors. He uses them to construct the story and invite us into possibly the most intriguing young adult book of the year.

The story centers around 16-year-old Jacob Portman, who is living a life he describes as ordinary. Jacob works at a chain store called Smart Aid where he sells Stay-Tite and Neverleak. The person with any degree of creative influence over Jacob's life is his grandfather, Abraham Portman.

Abraham has been filling Jacob's head with eccentric stories from his own childhood. These stories include his escape from the Nazis, his childhood in Miss Peregrine's orphanage and his collection of strange, black-and-white photographs. Abraham's youthful life is filled with fantastic adventures but includes a past that is haunted, which forces him to leave the orphanage.

The tragic death of Abraham leads Jacob to a remote island off the coast of Wales. It is here that he discovers Miss Peregrine's home for peculiar children.

He also becomes haunted by his grandfather's past. Why did his grandfather leave the orphanage? Who was responsible for his death? And who was the mysterious Miss Peregrine?

As he later explores the abandoned house, it is unclear if the children still are alive, how they managed to not age and if they are dangerous.

Depending on their ages, readers may be reminded of David Lynch's films, X-Men comic strips, or Edward Scissorhands' lawn sculptures. There are a range of other potential references, but what makes this book so incredible is that it could borrow from previous ideas without appearing unimaginative.

In a young adult book market that thrives on its own derivativeness, this book attempts to do what its characters do. It attempts to find extraordinary things in an ordinary world. Through the use of strange and uncanny photographs, Riggs illuminates our prejudices and attitudes toward difference.

It's also no coincidence that part of the plot centers on Nazi persecution while other parts humorously evoke the ordinariness of Jacob's job and our consumer landscape.

Pick up a copy of Ransom Riggs's first novel, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." Don't expect another young adult novel about vampires or wizards. The writing is more layered, the characters more developed and the juxtaposition of text with photos is surreal and hauntingly beautiful. You'll find it in the new-read section at the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library.