Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures…?”
That’s how Alice in Wonderland opens, and Alice (and Lewis Carroll) had a point about books and pictures. Today children’s books are usually the only books (at least in the genre of fiction) with pictures, but journey back a century or so, and that wasn’t the case.
Dickens’ tales were all illustrated and yet I know few children who could wade through the likes of Bleak House. In 2011, the tales of Sherlock Holmes may be studied by youngsters, but during the Victorian times, The Hound of the Baskervilles (and its marvelous illustrations) was widely read by adults. And the list goes on: from fiction to poetry (think Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King), words were often accompanied by images. Life was good.
Would these books still have been masterpieces without the images? Certainly. But were they a little more special because of the images? Absolutely.
Enter Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ranson Riggs. Okay—it might not be a masterpiece in the Dickensian sense of the word, but it’s a beautiful book that certainly makes a nod to its 19th century predecessors and the authors and illustrators who believed that while the words might be the most important part of a book, they weren’t the only part of the book.
Just holding Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children evoked the feeling of 19th century literature, when the art of making a book was still a craft. The weight of the paper, the decorative elements, the photographs—even before I read the first word, I was in love.
Then I started reading and thankfully the story did not disappoint. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fantasy (perhaps with just a touch of magical realism), but it’s a fantasy with (no offense intended) not a wizard or vampire in sight. It’s the story of 16-year-old Jacob ,who grows up listening to his grandfather’s stories of monsters and enchantment. As a child, he believed, but like all children, as he grew older, he “began to have doubts” about the veracity of his grandfather’s tall tales. A family tragedy sends Jacob to Wales, the birthplace of his grandfather’s stories, and there he learns the truth about these stories and what it actually means to be peculiar.
In the briefest of “children’s” conversations, one of Jacob’s new friends states: “We’re peculiar…Aren’t you?” Jacob responds: “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” And the brilliant simplicity of the reply: “That’s a shame.”
And this is where the pictures come in. Primarily photographs, they show the peculiars: Children who can levitate and who can lift boulders, children who are invisible or have unusual heads. And then the hand-drawn picture of a monster, a monster Jacob sees, but learned about first from his grandfather: “Every time he described them he’d toss in some lurid new detail: they stank like putrefying trash; they were invisible except for their shadows; a pack of squirming tentacles lurked inside their mouths and could whip out in an instant and pull you into their powerful jaws.”
As a writer, Riggs has great descriptive powers, so in that respect the images aren’t really necessary, but they still add something—particularly the images that are black-and-white vintage photographs. In a note, Riggs relates:
All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered. They were lent from the personal archives of ten collectors, people who have spent years and countless hours hunting through giant bins of unsorted snapshots at flea markets and antiques mall and yard sales to find a transcendent few, rescuing images of historical significance and arresting beauty from obscurity—and most likely, the dump.
The photographs give the story a history, a history that Miss Peregrine continues: “There was a time when we [the peculiars] could mix openly with common folk. In some corners of the world we were regarded as shamans and mystics, consulted in times of trouble…But the larger world turned against us long ago. The Muslims drove us out. The Christians burned us as witches. Even the pagans of Wales and Ireland eventually decided that we were all malevolent faeries and shape-shifting ghosts.”
In a time when so much summer entertainment seems to be more of the same (i.e., Transformers and bad cable television) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a pleasant surprise—a story that is fresh and new, engrosses and grips, and provides enough clues so that the ending makes sense and seems thoughtful. It’s a book to lose yourself (whether you are adult or teen) in and a book that makes you forget the heat of summer and the cares of the outside world, for a while.
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