Book Club in Session: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine HeaderHeather: My sister, boyfriend, and I have recently started up a book club (if you can even call a meager three people who happen to be reading the same book a club).  Unfortunately for me, they share much the same taste in the fantasy/horror genres (a far cry from my beloved Chelsea Handler and Jodi Picoult), which leaves me searching to find books that will be to both their liking and mine.  I decided to go with a newly released young adult book (a perfect fit for both my reading level and maturity) called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  

The adventure in Miss Peregrine begins when sixteen-year-old Jacob unexpectedly finds his grandfather’s mangled body in the woods behind his house.  With his grandfather’s dying breath, he whispers the bizarre and seemingly nonsensical words that eventually lead Jacob to an island where his grandfather resided for a time during his youth, after escaping the clutches of the Nazis during World War II.

Although hoping to find the headmistress of the school his grandfather attended while on the island, much to Jacob’s dismay, he finds the school abandoned and in complete disrepair.  Just when he is about to give up hope and move on with his life, Jacob stumbles upon a world (and the unusual children which filled his grandfather’s tales) that will forever change his life.  With the discovery of this world, Jacob realizes that the monsters of his grandfather’s past might also be more real than Jacob ever imagined.

The unusual children in this novel have peculiar talents, perhaps even akin to superpowers.  As a result, some critics have argued that the book is nothing more than a rip-off of X-Men.  What would you say to these critics?  Do you tend to agree or disagree?

Lauren:  Though most of my knowledge only comes from the movies and a few comics, personally I think it is reaching to compare the two, even if they have similarities.  The kids of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters have powers and have to deal with the real world and acceptance, or lack there of in society, whereas the kids of Miss Perigrine’s home just simply have powers.  However, the settings of the stories are completely different.  For starters, the main basis of the X-Men stories is that they are fighting for a world that they can be a part of, as well as fighting against the mutants that would rather rule the world than live in peace.  However, in this book the kids have left the real world altogether because of their fears by living in the loops (alternate realities in which the kids relive the same day over and over again).  Not only that, but they don’t live in fear of humankind, but creatures that want to kill them.  So yes, the two are comparable in a very simplistic way, and the kid who is able to reanimate dead animals (and potentially humans) would make for an exceptionally creepy villain in the X-Men universe in my opinion, but they are far too different to draw real similarities.

Zach: I think the book does have parallels to the X-Men comics, but calling it a rip-off is a little harsh.  Of course, there is the obvious Miss Peregrine = Prof. X angle, but Miss Peregrine isn’t teaching the kids how to use their abilities, she’s only keeping them away from society.  Also, the children have abilities, but most of their abilities are pretty lame.  I did enjoy that some had major drawbacks (the lighter than air girl who had to be tied down at all times or she would float away, or the invisible boy that could never become visible).  None of the children’s powers are over the top crazy, either.  Who knows, maybe in later books (if there are any) the children will realize that their current abilities are just a shadow of what they can really do, but I doubt it.

Also, Lauren, I’d say these villains can be seen in the same light as the Brotherhood of Mutants.  The major difference being the Brotherhood HAD powers already.  In Miss Peregrine’s, the baddies are trying to acquire abilities of their own.  I don’t think they mention exactly what they want to do AFTER they gain these new powers.

All in all, I’d say it draws from some of the X-Men themes, but I wouldn’t call it a rip-off.

Heather: I absolutely agree with the two of you.  I didn’t even think of the X-men stories while reading, and didn’t come across the comparison until reading reviews of the book afterwards.  Besides, none of them had any particularly cool powers in my opinion.  Every single one of them had a downside.  For instance, they invisible boy stayed invisible ALL THE TIME.  It wasn’t a switch he could turn on and off.  And the girl who could float, like previously mentioned, had to be tied down so she didn’t float away.  It would be very difficult to fight any bad guys with that power.

The author, Ransom Riggs, included photographs of the children within the text so the reader could better visualize the children’s unique abilities.  The cool thing about these photos is that they were all found at garage/estate sales, museums, personal collections, or were sent to him by others, and they were taken of real people.  So, some of the story was actually written to fit the photos, while others were found and included post-writing.  Riggs goes so far to say that the photos are akin to a movie soundtrack.  It is possible to understand the story without the photos, but without them it would lose that extra something special, and the book just wouldn’t have the same ambiance.  However, he also mentions that including pictures is incredibly risky because if the character is imagined differently than he or she appears in the photo, this can create strong negative reactions due to the resulting dissonance between the two.

What did you all think of the picture?  I honestly didn’t pay too close of attention to them until I read the note Riggs included afterwards about using real, found photos – and then I went back and gave them a closer look.  Do you think they really were such an integral part of making the book special?  How did you react to them?

Lauren: Just to bring another comparison to give the X-Men argument some merit, there are definitely some X-Men out there who have drawbacks to their powers.  Cyclops has to wear sunglasses, or special eyewear, all the time just so he doesn’t laser people to death, Beast looks like a mix of the Disney beast and a smurf, and Rogue can’t touch people without doing them harm.  I don’t care how cool it is to steal someone’s powers, that’s gotta stink royally.  However, the difference here is there are still upsides to each of these characters, whereas I am not really sure what the upside to floating is.  Maybe her own special stealth mode of walking on ceilings or something, but I would gladly just be normal instead of risking floating up like a balloon until I died of asphyxiation.

As for the photos, I have always been a fan of visual aids, but sometimes when we are dealing with grandiose powers a visual (such as the still shots here, as opposed to comic panels) can stunt the excitement the reader can create on their own.  With that said, I still really liked them simply because of their creepy nature, but I don’t believe they were integral to telling the story.  And I would definitely not go as far to say that the pictures were similar to a film soundtrack.  A soundtrack can make or break a scene, from creating a horrific atmosphere that subconsciously builds terror in the viewer (though I prefer this example in how it pertains to video game soundtracks considering films often go for the cheap scare), to just simply amplifying the emotion that the scene is already building in the viewer.  This resonates and sticks with the viewer, where as here once I moved past the images I practically forgot all about them.

Long story short, I am neither for nor against the photos simply because I enjoyed the characters themselves, for the most part anyway.  Many of them were rather interesting in how they dealt with the monotony of their lives, such as the boy who was spending each repeat of the day following someone or something new, recording everything they do in order to have an extensive record of the day.  Also, I loved the complexity of these people stuck in the bodies of little children, though many of them have lived the equivalent of a lifetime.  Which is really sad when you think about it, like Kirsten Dunst’s child vampire in Interview with a Vampire.

Zach: I thought the photos were unnecessary.  They seriously messed with my internal imagining of the characters.  I also agree that equating the pictures with a movie soundtrack is kinda dumb.  If you take the soundtrack out of a movie it completely loses its emotional impact.  If you were to take the pictures out of the book, it wouldn’t really lose anything.  I think the pictures shouldn’t have been included because they take away from the overall experience more than they bring to it.

Heather: While I agree with the two of you in that the photos were in no way comparable to a soundtrack, I actually liked them, especially after I found out they were all real. The pictures had an eerie quality to them characteristic of many old photos, which I think added a sort of darkness that I’m not sure would have been wholly captured through Riggs’ writing.  I know I’m not alone in thinking that there is something disconcerting about an unsmiling child dressed in old fashioned clothes staring seemingly out of the picture into your soul!  So I say more power to the author in including those photos, with one caveat: the picture he included of the main character’s grandfather (as a teen) and his love interest is all wrong!  She is supposed to be young, but the picture makes her look thirty.  And speaking of romance, what did you think of the fact that Jacob’s grandfather and Jacob dated/loved the same girl? Weird and disturbing?  Furthermore, what did you think of the main character, Jacob?  Did you find him to be a compelling protagonist?

Lauren: Personally I was creeped out by the relationship between Jacob and Emma.  I guess technically it is similar to the whole vampire falls in love with a human girl who is decades, if not hundreds of years, younger than him, so though I can’t get skeeved out by this relationship in that sense if I swoon over other examples that do the same (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not Twilight), I can still hold this one to a different level of creepiness because there is something awkwardly incestuous about it.  Obviously it is not incest factually, but it just feels wrong.  And isn’t this against a bro code?

As for Jacob on his own, I don’t know if I just didn’t connect to his character, but I was pretty indifferent to him towards the end.  It started out well as I was intrigued by what he was doing as he tried to dig up his grandfather’s past and unravel the mystery of his death, but towards the end I felt that he gave himself a level of importance that he didn’t deserve.  He’s been with this group of kids that have suffered for a long time for only a few days, yet he is acting as if he has experienced all the pain they have throughout their lives.  It is as if he has allowed his “power” to go to his head since the others’ survival rates go up with him around.  Well, maybe not, but at least they will know where the monster is before it attacks them…

Zach: I did find it kind of strange that Jacob and Emma kinda fell for each other.  She may LOOK like she’s 12 or whatever, but she’s lived long enough to be his grandma.  The whole thing made me think of Futurama when Fry went back in time and accidentally became his own grandpa.

As for Jacob as a character, I didn’t really connect with him at all.  He kind of came off as whiny.  His abilities are dumb.  “Oh look, I can see the creatures!”  I can see a lion as it’s running at me, doesn’t mean I can do squat about it.  I also agree with Lauren, he was with the other children for maybe a week or two?  He starts acting like a big shot near the end.  It would have been different if his abilities made him some kind of badass when they are in the loops or something, but he’s just as worthless after finding the children as he was in his normal life.

Heather:  I didn’t think Jacob was really the best male lead either.  However, I don’t think he was necessarily acting like a big shot near the end – perhaps he was just coming into his own.  Before he didn’t really feel strong attachments to anyone in the real world, nor did he feel as though he belonged there.  And although he didn’t have the coolest power that would have warranted him abandoning the real world to help save the children he had only known for a week or two, I don’t think I can really blame him.  After all, the children welcomed Jacob with open arms, and for the first time in his life he actually felt a sense of belonging.  If anyone instilled in him a sense of self-importance, it was perhaps the children themselves who did so and not entirely Jacob’s doing.

If anything, I reacted more negatively to the abrupt ending than any of the characters in this book.  We were finally getting to some of the exciting parts (i.e., fighting the baddies) and then it ended out of nowhere.  I have searched online to see if perhaps there is going to be a sequel or a series made out of the book, but I can’t find anything so far.  What did you all think of the ending?  Is there anything in the book that you wish Riggs would have explored further?  And finally, if there is a sequel, do you intend on reading it?

Lauren: Maybe if I found a copy of the sequel on the street I would pick it up and give it a go.  Ok, that’s a little harsh, but personally I wouldn’t go out of my way to read it because I was rather disappointed in the story.  It was fun enough, but I have plenty of other books I haven’t read on my shelves, so unless the sequel comes up in this book club in the future I am not going to go out of my way to read it.  There is just something about books that plan for sequels that really bothers me, such as Hater by David Moody.  I really enjoyed this book because of the way in which it was written stylistically, but when I got to the end and realized that it wasn’t a fully self-contained story I was more than ticked off.  At least The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan says that it is the first of three inside the front cover, but like Hater, Miss Peregrine fails to divulge this going in.

I know this is going outside the literary realm, but one thing that I cannot commend the Mass Effect trilogy for enough is that going in you knew it was going to be a trilogy, yet each game plays on its own.  It has its own story in addition to the over-arcing story that connects all three games, but each one is a stand-alone game in itself.  In concern to Miss Perigrine’s the same cannot be said.  This story isn’t enough on its own, but is more like the films these days that are doing Part 1 and Part 2.  This book was just Part 1, containing an ending that was very anticlimactic and unsatisfying as the culmination of the first book.

Something else I wish the author had explored more was giving the story stakes in concern to danger for the children.  Zach brought this up during our group discussion, so I will let him go into that.

Zach: I felt very unsatisfied with this book.  I probably would read the next one just to try and get some closure if nothing else.

Like Lauren said, I really disliked the fact that it felt like there was no real danger or crisis.  I didn’t feel like the bad guys could really do any real harm (aside from shoot a gun at them).  Their grand scheme to do whatever it was they were trying to do just felt flat and boring.  I wish the author had put the children in more of a “holy crap, how are they going to get out of this” situation.  Had that been the case, I think I could have gotten behind the characters a little more, it would have fleshed them out further.  I think the problem the author ran into was that he spent so long setting up the story without really introducing the villain that it feels like he had to kind of rush out a climax and end the book so that younger readers wouldn’t be scared away by its length.

In short, poop on cliffhanger endings, they are lazy.

Heather:  I think most would agree that this book ranks pretty low on the totem pole compared to some other young-adult books (e.g., Harry Potter, the Book Thief, the Hunger Games) especially considering how tame it was in terms of violence, suspense, and a sense of danger.  Even the world Jacob finds himself in seems rather flat.  However, I can’t help but feel like there was a certain charm to it, probably in part to the credit of the found photos.  On the flip said though, Riggs would have definitely benefited by spending a little less time searching for those photos and a little more time fleshing out his story.

Final Grades:

Heather:  3.5 / 5     Lauren:  3 / 5     Zach:  3 / 5

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