In Ransom Riggs' novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a somewhat sullen American teenager goes looking for his grandfather's past. Expecting to find elderly friends of the family, he instead uncovers an extremely unusual legacy.
On his mother's side, Jacob is the scion of a Floridian drug-store empire. He expects he'll go to college and eventually drift into a cushy gig at the family business. But his grandfather's legacy ends up pulling him in a surprising different direction. The two are close and Jacob spends his childhood listening to stories about the older man's youth, where he hid from terrible monsters with other extraordinary children. He even has the eerie pictures to prove it.
But as anyone who's ever believed in Santa Clause knows, eventually the world intervenes and busts up all those childhood beliefs. One day Jacob decides it's time to give up the baby stuff, and so his grandfather packs away the pictures. It takes him a while, but Jacob eventually realizes the monsters his grandfather fled were actually the Nazis. By the time he's a teenager, he sees Abraham as a sad, senile, embarrassing old man who he's responsible for minding.
That changes when Jacob gets a frantic call and arrives to find his grandfather slashed to ribbons, bleeding out in the woods behind his house. The police blame wild dogs, but Jacob is certain he saw a monstrous figure (with a mouth full of tentacles!) lurking in the darkness. Naturally, his next stop is a shink's office. But Jacob can't get Abraham's dying instructions to "find the bird," and when he discovers a letter from a Miss Peregrine, it seems to confirm that there's something to his dying words. That's how he ends up on a remote Welsh island, looking for an orphanage and his grandfather's fellow refugees.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children has two sections, before and after Jacob discovers the eponymous peculiar children. The opening is sad and suspenseful and wonderfully captures a suburban teenager's ambivalence about the adults in his life. His parents are self-absorbed and locked in the kind of relationship where they'll carp about each other but refuse to get divorced. And while Abraham was his childhood hero, Jacob seems to feel a bit betrayed that, in the end, he was just another flawed human being. It's realistic without being an overwhelming bummer. Meanwhile, the mystery of the orphans themselves, who they were and what happened to them, makes for page-turning reading.
Once Jacob actually finds his grandfather's childhood friends, things take a turn for the outright fantastical — even as the novel becomes less mysterious and complex. For the first hundred pages or so, it's not clear whether Abe was wrapping the horror and loneliness of his youth in a series of tales that young Jacob could understand, or whether something even stranger is going on, or if he was just bat-shit crazy.Well, spoiler alert, but the pictures are completely real: the levitating girl, the super-strong boy, and everyone else from his grandfather's mysterious photos. This could have gotten overly whimsical really, really fast, but every character is well-drawn and uniquely eccentric, from the creepy little boy who can reanimate the dead to the somber-but-dandified teen with prophetic dreams.
From the moment he finds his grandfather's fellow orphans, Jacob is struggling to fit into this new world and settling into the role of heroic protagonist. But he's largely done wrestling with his complicated relationship with his family, and the tone of the novel does shift in a lighter direction. That's a little disappointing, because it's not usually so simple to resolve three generations' worth of dysfunction. However, the plot remains exciting and Jacob's adventures are more than enough to keep you turning the pages.
But it's the eerie pictures that make this book memorable. Every single image is a vintage photography plucked from a garage sale or junk shop by a collector — every one of whom is credited in a note at the end. The cover image of a levitating frowny-faced girl in a party dress and tiara is just one among a number of striking shots. There's one of a little boy bunny costume, slumped on a sidewalk in tears, and another of a woman and a boy walking down a tunnel into a bright burst of light. It's almost as if Riggs wrote the entire novel to make sense of this series of bizarre photos. Whether or not that's the case, these illustrations elevate a perfectly decent YA novel to something weird and cool that truly stands out.