Photographs, Monsters & Vivid Imagination in Miss Peregrine's Home
I have a confession.
I didn't want to read this book.
For the past three-and-a-half years, I've seen it on bookstore shelves—an interesting title, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. But I never even picked it up to look at the blurb on the back cover.
Because of the creepy little girl on the book's front cover. No, it's not because she's levitating. And it's not due to the texture of the old photograph, with the odd lighting and blurred background.
It's the expression on the little girl's face. She looks like she knows way too much about the world and all its horrors. She's seen things. She's staring into the camera wishing doom on anyone who crosses her path.
My dreams are easily influenced by the books I read, and I didn't want to know what this little girl had in store for my subconscious.
So what changed? Why did I finally read this book about peculiar children with the creepy little girl as its poster child?
Well, a few weeks ago, the movie based on the book opened in theaters. My stepdaughter wants to see it, but we both have a rule about movies based on books: whenever possible, read the book before watching the movie.
She read the book and started pestering me to read it to, so we could finally see the film. (We still haven't made it to the theater. We don't get out much.)
Now that I've read the book, I'm glad I did. I enjoyed the story, and I appreciated it, even more, when I learned (from the author interview at the back of the book) how the story was written.
A picture's worth a novel or two...or three...
Ransom Riggs, the author of the Peculiar Children novels, got inspiration for his books from vintage photographs. He started collecting old photos at flea markets and got to know other collectors.
As he saw more and odder vintage photographs of children, the ideas for the peculiar children blossomed in his mind. And the photos that are featured in the books are real vintage photographs that he discovered and added to his collection.
I love the concept of using an image as the focal point for writing. In fact, one of my grad school professors started every class that way; he'd project a photograph or painting and all of us--the teacher included--would write for 10 minutes in our journals.
But I digress. The point is, the strange, sometimes creepy, photographs in Riggs' collection are certainly excellent sources of fuel for the imagination.
Monsters: metaphor or reality?
Another aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed--aside from the connection to the photographs--is the question of whether monsters are real.
The story opens with teenage Jacob describing his relationship with his grandfather. Jacob recalls that when he was a young child, his grandfather filled his head with stories about the monsters--monsters that persecuted the grandpa and his friends because they were different.
Jacob takes his grandfather at his word for years until Jacob's father explains that the grandpa survived the Holocaust. Suddenly, the parallel between the grandfather's stories and our own international history becomes apparent--the monsters in the stories are a metaphor for the Nazis.
But then a dramatic turn of events sends Jacob on a quest to retrace the steps his grandfather took when fleeing the war as a child. Jacob ends up on an island in the UK, and again he's confronted with the question. Are monsters real?
The novel circles back to this theme multiple times. Even as you learn more about the monsters, you begin to question their connection to humanity.
Just like our own history—the past, present, and future—is wrapped up in a tangled web of finding, fighting, and creating monsters, the children in the novel must grapple with the same issues—only with a peculiar twist.