Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Riggs' YA novel from Quirk Books.
A peculiar book for peculiar readers.

I was a creepy kid. In the first grade, my favorite books in the library were on mummies and archaeology. While I was mildly obsessed with the pictures of dusty tombs and viscera-filled canopic jars, what I couldn’t stop turning to were actual photographs of preserved bodies found in peat bogs. They reminded me of raisins: blackened, dried-up skin, but still sort of juicy. One, the victim of a hanging, still had an intact rope around his neck.

Weird words obsessed me too, and I recall the first time I heard the word carcass (which fascinated me enough to color a picture of one for a second-grade art assignment). I learned mausoleum from a Trixie Belden book, though I pronounced it then to rhyme with linoleum. (From Trixie Belden #14, The Mystery of the Emeralds: The gate was ajar, and going through it, Trixie and Jim saw rows of moss-covered headstones. In the rear was a small but impressive marble mausoleum. "Ooooh! Cemeteries give me the shivers!" Trixie exclaimed.)

The Egyptian tombs, the bog carcasses, and the mausoleums had something in common besides the spectre of mortality (In the midst of life, we are in death was a concept I learned long before I ever heard the specific words). They are all things that seem otherworldly, yet are of this world. That otherworldliness, grounded in reality, goes a long way towards explaining what’s so appealing about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, especially to a creepy kid-turned-adult like me.
Miss Peregrine's back cover.

The old photographs, on the cover and scattered liberally throughout the pages, are a huge part of the appeal. They too are both real and otherworldly. The black-and-white snapshots are of real people, strangers who are likely long-dead, that author Ransom Riggs found while scouring flea markets. While the author wove these odd and disparate images into a single story, it’s hard not to wonder what the real stories are. Why is the child in the bunny costume crying? Who are the weird twin clowns? It’s hard to know which might be more strange, the real (unknown) stories or the ones the author invented.

Riggs’ novel begins with the death of a young boy’s grandfather, and it’s a frightening and bizarre death. Clues left behind by the grandfather ultimately lead Jacob Portman to the abandoned ruins of an orphanage on a small Welsh island. See? Real-life creepy things already. Death, weird abandoned buildings, and mysterious orphans are only the beginning. In fact, the preserved body of a bog person even makes an appearance in a local museum. (My childhood self would have slept with this book under her pillow.)

Though the story does turn supernatural, the supernatural elements are the kind even the most skeptical parts of myself can manage to believe in. There are time loops. There are monsters -- hollowgasts -- that are the stuff of nightmares. The kids have powers, but they are not superheroic. Their powers are odd -- some are almost useless -- and serve to make them outcasts and freaks. In the context of an Old World-thinking Welsh village, these kids aren’t much different from the deformed or severely handicapped. They form their own world at the children’s home, which Jacob ultimately stumbles into.

Like the children themselves, the book has its flaws. Parts of the story beg believability. It’s not the strange stuff that seems so unreal, as disbelief can be suspended for the supernatural. It’s harder to believe that it’s a cinch to convince your Dad to up and take you to Wales, then leave you largely alone once you’re there. 

Ransom Riggs scoured flea markets for real photos to use in the book.

It may seem cliche to say “It’s too short!” as a criticism (a staple of reviewers who don’t wish to say anything too negative), but in this case, it really is a negative. After the world you come to know in Miss Peregrine changes dramatically, the story moves to high action, then ends too soon. If the book were expanded, the reader could spend more time in the book’s superior first half, learning more about the characters there.

The ending is grossly unsatisfying, and smacks of setting-up-a-sequel. The publisher may be to blame more than the author for the choice, but it’s still bothersome. There are ways to allow room for a sequel without damaging the story of the book at hand. That we haven’t seen the last of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is certain, in fact, a movie is in the works with TIm Burton said to be directing.

If nothing else, Ransom Riggs should be applauded for the creation of horror for young adults without any of the trendy tropes. Nary a vampire, zombie or even a teen witch is in sight. Both my creepy kid self and my creepy adult self approve.

Download and read the first three chapters of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children free at Quirk Books.

Are there elements from your favorite childhood books that still please you to find in fiction?


  1. In my childhood days, I read mostly books about football and baseball. My fright times came from the movies. I would go see the about Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, as well as some monsters from the ocean and space that I don't remember. those movies taught me how to suspend my disbelief.

    Liked the review and downloaded the 3 chapters.

  2. It sounds like something Tim Burton would like. Sounds like an intriguing IDEA for a book- and love the pictures, but not quite my cuppa.

  3. What would you say is the minimum age level? It seems to be along the lines of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls but maybe too graphically creepy.

    1. It's got a good amount of death, some of it a bit gruesome, and the main character is 16 and uses profanity. It's the kind of thing I would have read between 8-10, but I'd recommend it only for pretty mature readers of that age. Otherwise, 12 and up.

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