I bumped the Miss Peregrine series up on my TBR for two very good reasons. First, Tim Burton was working on the movie. I lurve Tim Burton and I see all the movies he makes. Second, I have a friend who was high school buddies with Ransom Riggs and who recommended that I read the books. He showed me a photo of Riggs standing and grinning next to Burton. Once the intense jealousy faded, I started seeing the books all around me. Since the covers and the idea seemed so intriguing, I thought, How could this series go wrong?
So far, the series is an original trilogy:
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
- Hollow City
- Library of Souls
As well as a companion book, Tales of the Peculiar, and a graphic novel version, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel, by Riggs and Cassandra Jean. I read all of the above, but have obviously not read the second trilogy, which begins release later this year (2017). I have also seen the Burton movie.
Let’s talk about how this series came to be. Ransom Riggs had a collection of weird, old photos. He decided to make a book containing the photos. A book agent said to him, “No. Why don’t you make a novel containing the photos?” Riggs said, “Sure,” and started connecting with other weird, old photo collectors and coming up with a story. For reals. That’s how this started.
The series centers around Jacob, who thinks he is just a normal dude, who is most definitely living a normal (and slightly depressing) life, whose grandpa used to tell him these extraordinary stories which turned out to be extraordinary lies. When Grandpa dies in a shocking incident, he leaves Jacob clues to point him toward his past and Jacob’s inevitable future. With the help of his psychiatrist, Jacob ends up in Cairnholm, Wales, where Grandpa used to be an orphan, and stumbles upon his adventure and the deep, unexpected truth.
Drama of all sorts ensues. Romance emerges. Family and friends. Bad guys. Weird science. Badder guys. Alien-like and magic-like characters and situations. And lots and lots of action.
I was surprised by this series in many ways. First off, judging from the cover and from its ubiquity, I did not realize that it was YA until I actually started reading. Then it was like, how could you miss it? The writing, plot… everything screams YA. But even more than that, this book’s story is—and this is saying a lot in the modern climate of fantasy YA—fresh and interesting. Sure, we are not surprised by a teenage boy coming of age as he discovers a magical truth, but we are surprised by the originality of the fantasies themselves. I don’t want to spoil too much for you, but the whole idea of kids with odd abilities being hidden in time loops is just enough different, not to mention ymbrnes, wights, and hollowgasts. The series is rich with images and situations, which is part (along with tone) of what probably drew Burton to it.
But beyond the (dark, eerie, even scary) tone and the ideas, I found reading this series to be frustrating. It was just so very YA, and I kept feeling like this writer has too much potential to shove it all into the YA box. Not that YA can’t be great writing, but then it ends up transcending age limits. This did not. And it’s more than that. The writing at the beginning of the first book was much different than what it became later on. For awhile, we actually go deep into Jacob. We live in those moments and see Florida and his life clearly. Then—which always seems to me like a deadline approached and writing and editing got less careful—the writing speeds up, making first-person feel silly and just lost me for the rest of the series. I kept hoping the superior writing and better voice would return, but it never did.
What Riggs does deliver on in the whole series is action. Things are always moving, which may seem like I’m asking for opposites. But he could have packed in all that fascinating action while still keeping his writing tighter and his exploration into the characters and setting deeper. These books are one wild ride, but I found myself wanting to slow down for spurts so that I could linger on what was important. Besides what Jacob gave us at the beginning, I never felt I got to know any characters well enough.
There were also some issues with the mute character. Riggs could have kept her like that and been fine, but she needed to be more active. In fact, I believe he (or his editor) realized the problems, which is why she is “written out” for a long, long time. It feels as contrived as I think it probably was. At any rate, her disappearance remains weird.
And speaking of the supporting characters, Riggs made the rookie mistake of introducing too many characters at once. I’m not saying I’ve never done it, just that it’s a bad idea unless you can come up with some other way for the reader to distinguish between them and remember them. Never, since Russian literature, did I have so much trouble remembering who each of the children were. Digging deeper into the characters, as I mentioned above, may have helped with this. In the end, the bios at the beginning of the second book really helped to ground me when I could not find my way. I was hopelessly lost by the end of the first.
And speaking of the beginning of the book, I have always wondered what it would be like to get into a book (later in a series) without all the preamble. Turns out it’s not the best idea. At least here, it was too sudden. Starting without all the explanation is one thing, but starting without finesse is another. Must keep this in mind. (The books also end similarly abruptly, which makes me think that writing series so that each book is a complete nugget is still, after all this time, the way to go.)
Of course, the photos are a large part of what makes this series special and cool. However, I hated that photos cut up the narrative instead of continuing to bottom of page. (I am a geek when in comes to fonts and margins and all that, but this was just a poor, and unprofessional looking, choice.) Also, the writing and plot were sometimes forced one way or another, in order to fit with the photo or include a new one. There were too many photos worked into the story in order to include them. Perhaps Riggs should have just let the photos exist like an illustration instead of having to explain them. I LOLed (and not in a good way) when the characters came across a photo taped to an outdoor net on a side of a cliff, which just happened to show someone using it so that they knew how to use it. Nuh-uh.
And for the record, my Middle Grades series was titled The Menagerie long before these books were published, let alone read by me. It has absolutely nothing in common with this series, anyhow.
In the end, I would recommend this series, with reservations. I know that high schoolers are going to continue to enjoy this series for years to come, and they should. But I was frustrated continually by the deteriorating writing style and the surfacy characters, as well as by the use of the otherwise cool photos. The action kept me hanging in, as it will for many readers.
As for the companion, Tales of the Peculiar, I enjoyed it to a point. It makes sense, and I am sure die-hard fans enjoyed it. However, it just didn’t have enough stories for my taste. Not that writing a book of short fiction is easy peasy, because it’s not. In the series, though, the Tales is clearly much longer and thorough. Perhaps he could have sold it as a piece of the Tales. Anyhow, the stories are pretty cool and they contribute to the feeling that this fantasy world is complete (like Tolkein or Rowling). Really, he could stick with this for an entire career.
The best of the whole thing? The graphic novel. When I came across this, I had an aha! moment, as in this series should all have been done as a graphic novel. Really, the art is beautiful and includes the photos is a cool way, and the whole concept just really works this way. However, there is only the one book. Maybe just read that?
I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City, The Library of Souls, Tales of the Peculiar, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel, by Ransom Riggs. The last book contained the art of Cassandra Jean. They were all published by Quirk Publishing in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2013.
The 2016 movie by Tim Burton was pretty good, actually. I found some of the changes in characters to be irritating, which I am sure many other fans did, as well. (I can see why Burton did it, but sometimes author choices—let along fans—should just be honored.) Otherwise, I thought they compressed the three stories rather nicely and made some really cool actor choices, special effects, moments, and villains. Very YA, even though it has great atmosphere (as all Burton movies do).