Ransom Riggs is one of the latest producers of a young adult fantasy story series. His “Miss Peregrine” three-volume saga gained enough attention to move his books into #1 on the New York Times best seller lists and get his first volume turned into a movie by 20th Century Fox last year. The series contains: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011; Hollow City, 2014; Library of Souls, 2015.
One thing that sets the series apart from other fantasy books of this genre is his use of strange and peculiar photographs collected by Riggs’ friends from boxes of old pictures for sale in flea markets and nostalgia shops. 80 or 90 years ago there was a fad to take trick photos, rather like the current fad of selfies. Riggs appears to have used the photos to spark his imagination that these were realistic pictures of peculiar children in a parallel world with abilities to float in the air, make plants grow instantly, generate flames in the palms of their hands – or in the case of Jake Portman, the hero of the stories, to see (and later to communicate with and control) terrifying demons who devour peculiar children. The peculiar children were defended by peculiar women who could turn into birds at will, and also reset time loops where the children could be safe, although locked into a constantly- repeating 24-hours.
There are two measures of success for publications like this. Commercial success is the result of popular acclaim that produces sales of books, tickets and possibly figurines. Literary success is harder to measure; it includes such things as good critical reviews, utilization in other media, mention in scholarly journals, and imitation by other writers. Critical reviews tend to analyze the internal logic of the stories, consistency of plot, development of characters, energy and pace, and sustainable suspended disbelief.
Riggs uses three devices to enable our disbelief to stay suspended. First, he takes great pains (and 100 pages of text) to ease us into the alternate reality where time is suspended, peculiar children exist, and an evil empire (of course) is on the rise. We see what young Jake sees and begin to believe when he does. Second, Riggs uses the old pictures liberally until we are inured to their obvious fakeness and randomness, and we treat them as portraits of peculiar characters in a peculiar realm, rather than peculiar pictures designed to amuse, wrenched out of context. The movie hardly mentions the photo collection, and hardly needs to, because the big screen gives viewers all the visual reinforcement they need. But the quirky pictures are probably the most remarkable and innovative aspect of the books, as early reviewers tended to mention. Third, Jake’s forays into peculiardom are firmly doubted by his family. Any glimpses they have into his secret life convince them he is psychotic, and their recalcitrance gives readers additional motivation to side with Jake and his peculiar colleagues as we then want to reject the crass, mundane reality into which Jake’s parents are trying to suppress him.
This fantasy fiction is escapist on many levels. But young adult fiction is supposed to be more than that. J.K. Rowling loads Harry Potter with all sorts of social encouragement. C.S. Lewis instills theology into the Narnia series. Rick Riordan imparts large doses of classical culture and mythology. What is Riggs’s second agenda? Perhaps the series is too new or unremarkable to have attracted serious critical attention. Neither Open Court nor Wiley-Blackwell have included Miss Peregrine in their philosophy and popular culture series, although Atlantic did review the movie. For my part, I think young adult readers will latch onto the idea that diversity is an advantage when confronting powerful evil. In the beginning the peculiarities of the children are just strange and disconcerting, almost handicaps; but when it comes time to escape, those individual abilities make key contributions. The world is a dangerous place. Although the peculiar children skip from one time era to another, danger is there whether it’s sunny 21st century Florida or London during the Blitz. Other constants are the complicated motives and unpredictable behavior of authority figures.
Finally, the books ponder the question whether it is better to grow up or not. This Peter Pan question is usually framed as a choice between neurotic regression and authentic maturation, but Riggs posits it as a matter of shelter versus engagement, which is very much the older adolescent challenge. In other words, readers of Miss Peregrine’s … Peculiar Children are encouraged to face their own psychological realities. Jake’s tough choices are only circumstantially strange. Every-child faces a range of emotional issues including rejecting parents to accept a mate, avoiding being clutched and eaten alive by hollow men, reaching out to those in desperate need, confronting the imminent possibility of death, discovering that grandpa was wiser and braver than anyone knew (this insight tends to skip generations), and that one’s own endowed talents are certainly peculiar.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.