The creepy kids of Ran­som Riggs

The author re­pur­poses vin­tage pho­tos for his young adult se­ries

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IN the dark sub­ur­ban forests of young adult nov­els — peo­pled by jock­ish were­wolves, vam­pire vix­ens, and scores of lum­ber­ing zom­bies — it takes some­thing un­usual to stand out. En­ter Miss Pere­grine’s Home for Pe­cu­liar Chil­dren (Quirk Books). The 2011 de­but young-adult novel by Ran­som Riggs ditched the su­per­nat­u­ral for the late Vic­to­rian, spin­ning a gothic yarn out of ac­tual vin­tage 19th-cen­tury pho­to­graphs of chil­dren, re­pro­duced in the book in all their ex­quis­ite, stone-faced surrealism. Among the four dozen vin­tage images in­cluded in the book (and fea­tured as part of the plot) are a boy cov­ered in bees, ghostly kids parad­ing around in rib­bons and white pancake makeup, and a child crouched upon a bomb. It’s a col­lec­tion of beau­ti­ful grotesques whose aes­thetic is pitched some­where be­tween Diane Ar­bus and Tim Bur­ton, who has been tapped to make the film ver­sion of the book, sched­uled to be re­leased next year.

“I hap­pen to col­lect the weird stuff — pho­tos that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up a lit­tle. The un­canny,” wrote the author in a 2011 col­umn for The Huff­in­g­ton Post. “I don’t mean cir­cus freaks and kids in Hal­loween cos­tumes, either. I mean pho­tos that seem wrong in a way that’s hard to put your fin­ger on, so un­usual they make you look at them a sec­ond and then a third time, then re­ward you with un­easy dreams. The kind of pho­tos that seem to stare at you from across a room.”

Riggs said when he was a kid grow­ing up in small­town Florida, he first started crate-dig­ging through old snapshots while tag­ging along with his grand­mother at swap meets. It was a habit he re­sumed while a film grad stu­dent at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the late 2000s, find­ing af­ford­able art in th­ese haunt­ing dis­carded images. Riggs has told re­porters the novel be­gan as a Hal­loween chil­dren’s pic­ture book, to be built around rhyming cou­plets and the strangely en­tranc­ing cu­rio of vin­tage snapshots the writer had amassed over the years. His pub­lisher at Quirk Books told him the pho­tos were far too en­tic­ing, and per­haps a tad too mor­bid, for such a project. In­stead, he urged him to think on a grander scale and craft a novel-length nar­ra­tive. The re­sult­ing de­but spent most of 2012 on the New York Times best­seller list for chil­dren’s chap­ter books.

Miss Pere­grine’s Home for Pe­cu­liar Chil­dren fol­lows teenage Ja­cob as he jour­neys from his home in coastal Florida to a small is­land in Wales af­ter his grand­fa­ther is mur­dered by what ap­pears to be some sort of ten­ta­cle-mouthed mon­ster. Ja­cob is dev­as­tated. Since he was a young child, he’s been fas­ci­nated by his grand­fa­ther’s tales and macabre pho­tos from his up­bring­ing on a re­mote Welsh is­land, where his grand­fa­ther claimed that “pe­cu­liar chil­dren” lived — boys and girls who could fly, lev­i­tate, and make them­selves in­vis­i­ble. Some­times their abil­i­ties were less su­per­nat­u­ral than down­right strange. One photo that ap­pears early in the book, of a boy who has a de­tailed clown face painted on the back of his shaved head, is cap­tioned, “Oliver Wat­tle had two ways to snack/one on the front and one in the back.”

On his trip to Wales, Ja­cob dis­cov­ers the ram­shackle or­phan­age where his grand­fa­ther was raised. He meets Emma, a pretty young girl who has the gift of con­trol­ling fire. She takes Ja­cob on a time-trav­el­ing trip to meet Miss Pere­grine, who over­sees this strange or­phan­age from her res­i­dence in a “time loop.” But some of the chil­dren are be­ing tar­geted for mur­der by in­vis­i­ble be­ings, “hol­low­gasts,” the same mon­sters that killed Ja­cob’s grand­fa­ther. In the sort of plot turn the reader comes to ex­pect from such tales, Ja­cob learns he can see th­ese oth­er­wise-in­vis­i­ble crea­tures, which brands him a “pe­cu­liar” as well.

Af­ter Ja­cob uses his tal­ents to kill one of the hol­low­gasts, Miss Pere­grine is kid­napped in re­tal­i­a­tion. To sur­vive, she trans­forms into a bird, a state from which she can­not turn back. As a re­sult, the time loop in which th­ese pe­cu­liar chil­dren dwell col­lapses, forc­ing them to scat­ter and find a new home in a less un­der­stand­ing world. It’s the sort of con­clu­sion that sets up Ja­cob and his author-creator for a spate of se­quels.

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