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Book Club Kits: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

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Ransom Riggs

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Book Summary

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children has sold millions of copies, been translated into 40 languages, and has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Named one of "100 Young Adult Books to Read in a Lifetime" by, a film adaptation directed by Tim Burton came to theaters worldwide on September 30, 2016.

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here—one of whom was his own grandfather—were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Discussion Questions

  1. What effect did the photographs have on how you experienced this novel? In fact, what was your reading experience of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children? How did it make you feel? Were you disturbed...or fascinated...or something else?  Did the book hold your interest?


  1. What's wrong with Jacob Portman? What's his problem?


  1. What about Abe Portman, what kind of character is he? What kind of a world does he create in his stories for young Jacob? Why do the stories intrigue Jacob so much?


  1. As he moves into adolescence, why does Jacob begin to doubt the veracity of his grandfather's stories? In what way does he think they may be connected to Abe's struggle under the Nazis?


  1. What makes Jacob think his grandfather's death is more sinister than what the official version claims.


  1. Talk about the house in Wales. When Jacob first lays eyes on it, he observes that it "was no refuge from monsters, but a monster itself." Would you say the house serves as a setting to the story...or is its role something else—a character, perhaps?


  1. What are the atmospherics used to build suspense in the novel. Find some examples of how the author uses language to instill unease, fear, and tension.


  1. Are you able to make sense of the "after," the time loop? Can you explain it? Do you enjoy the way Riggs plays with time in his novel?


  1. Were you surprised by the direction that the story took? Were you expecting it to go elsewhere? Were you able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story's turn of events?
  2.  Talk, of course, about the peculiar children. Which of their oddities and personalities do you find most intriguing?
  3. Some readers have complained about the inconsistency of the narrative voice, that it was perhaps too sophisticated for a young boy, even an adolescent? Do you agree, or disagree? Does the narrative voice change during the course of the novel?
  4. In what way can this book be seen as a classic quest story—a young hero who undertakes a difficult journey and is transformed in the process? Do you see parallels with other fantasy works involving young people?
  5. Does the end satisfy? Are loose ends tied up....or left hanging? This is the first book of a planned series. Will you read future installments? Where do you think Riggs will take his readers next?


  1. Riggs offers several parallels between the "Peculiars" in his story and the Jews during the Holocaust (see note below). He specifically says that Jacob Portman's grandfather was doubly affected because the Nazis were trying to exterminate the Jews while the Hollowghasts were trying to destroy the Peculiars. How does this comparison work out in the experiences of Jacob Portman? 


  1. Discuss Jacob's experience discovering identities: his own, that of his grandfather, that of all the monsters who had been in his life, that of the Peculiars, etc?


  1. Did you find the descriptions of "monsters" horrifying – especially because only Jacob can see them? How did they work into the theme of betrayal – Dr.Golan is a monster, the school-bus driver is a monster, etc. Parents, aunts, uncles, age-peers are all unsympathetic or hostile. Only the grandfather, the least-plausible adult, turns out to have been trustworthy. That is, until the Peculiars appear.


  1. Was the use of old photos effective? Do you think Riggs' choices were good? Did he combine his love of old photos into a seamless plot?


  1. How does the author use the three extremely different settings -- modern Florida, modern Cairnholm, (the fictitious island off Wales with a spooky ruined house and a time-travel “loop” entry under an ancient grave), and the same island during World War II?


  1. Do you know kids who have read it? What was their reaction?

About the Author

About Ransom Riggs as told by himself…


Hi, I'm Ransom, and I like to tell stories. Sometimes I tell them with words, sometimes with pictures, often with both. I grew up on a farm on the Eastern shore of Maryland and also in a little house by the beach in Englewood, Florida where I got very tan and swam every day until I became half fish. I started writing stories when I was young, on an old typewriter that jammed and longhand on legal pads. When I was a little older, I got a camera for Christmas and became obsessed with photography, and when I was a little older still, my friends and I came into possession of a half-broken video camera and began to make our own movies, starring ourselves, using our bedrooms and backyards for sets. I have loved writing stories and taking photographs and making movies ever since, and have endeavored to do all three.


After high school, I went to Kenyon College, a very pretty and quite old by American standards, college in rural Ohio, where I studied literature and got a degree in English. Then I fulfilled a long-held dream and went to film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I'd been making films since the backyard-masterpiece days of my childhood, but at USC I learned how to make them bigger and better and shiny-looking. I graduated with what I thought was a pretty slick thesis film under my arm and went out into the world to conquer the film festival circuit and then Hollywood -- or at least that was the plan, though it didn't quite work out that way. I spent a few years writing scripts and taking meetings and getting not very far, trying any way I could to get noticed. All the while I was writing: for five years I had a gig as a daily blogger for, and I also wrote for their magazine, contributed to a few books they published through HarperCollins, and wrote for a couple of other publications here and there, as well.


All of which turned into an opportunity to do some work for a small publisher who knew my editors at mentalfloss. That was Quirk Books, who asked me if I was interested in writing a book about Sherlock Holmes for them. I jumped at the opportunity. That was The Sherlock Holmes Handbook. Next came Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, born out of my love for vintage photography and bizarro stories, and I never looked back. I still love movies and I still make short films and one day I will make a feature -- when the time and the material are right. These days, though, I'm loving being a novelist, a photo collector, and an occasional short filmmaker. I live in Los Angeles with my wife, the lovely and talented Tahereh Mafi -- who is also a writer, and if you haven't read her lovely and exciting Shatter Me, books you're missing out -- and we type and travel and drink tea together and it's really quite wonderful.

Interview with the Author

A Book That Started With Its Pictures

Ransom Riggs Is Inspired by Vintage Snapshots

By Maria Russo – Dec. 30, 2013


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Growing up in Florida, the writer Ransom Riggs was often taken by his grandmother to swap meets and secondhand shops. “It was pretty torturous for an 11- or 12-year-old boy,” Mr. Riggs said recently, “but I would find these boxes of old snapshots.”


One picture — it reminded him of a girl he’d had a crush on at camp — had such an effect on him that he bought it and put it by his bed. “Years later, I took it out and looked on the back,” he recalled, “and it said that she had died at age 15 of leukemia. I thought, oh, wow, I’ve been living with a ghost.”


Mr. Riggs’s attraction to haunting photographs eventually became the catalyst for his first novel, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2011), a surprise best seller, whose plot was inspired by the dozens of vintage snapshots featured in its pages, which add to its uncanny atmosphere. With the film rights to “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” sold to 20th Century Fox (Chernin Entertainment is aiming for a summer 2015 release), and “Hollow City,” the second book in a planned “Miss Peregrine” trilogy, to be published in January, Mr. Riggs is beginning to feel at home in a career he calls “accidental.”


It was in 2009 that Mr. Riggs, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, stumbled on a trove of vintage snapshots at a flea market and felt the stirrings of an obsession.


 “I realized I can find these amazing little lost pieces of art and be my own curator and rescue them from the garbage,” he said, “and they’re a quarter each.” Long a connoisseur of abandoned houses and mysteriously desolate landscapes, Mr. Riggs said he was drawn to odd or disturbing photos that suggested lost back stories.


On a sunny morning at his carefully renovated Spanish-style home, Mr. Riggs, 34, who is tall and lanky with a manner both gentlemanly and unpretentious, flipped through his neatly organized boxes of snapshots, explaining why he chose some of his favorites. “The look on her face,” he said, pointing to a photograph of a woman sitting stiffly on the lap of a Nazi soldier. “That’s what it’s all about.”


While his snapshot collection grew, Mr. Riggs was training his sights on a filmmaking career, working on spec screenplays and supporting himself with freelance writing. Jason Rekulak, the publisher of Quirk Books in Philadelphia, for whom Mr. Riggs had been doing work for hire, asked him if he had any books he wanted to write. Mr. Riggs said he thought of the snapshots, particularly those with an “Edward Gorey-like Victorian weirdness, these haunting images of peculiar children.”


Mr. Riggs’s idea was to do a Halloween book of photos accompanied by rhyming couplets. It was Mr. Rekulak who suggested that the eerie pictures of the children might lend themselves to a novel.


Told from the point of view of Jacob Portman, a lonely 16-year-old Floridian who suspects that his grandfather’s tales of growing up on an island off Wales in a home full of children with unusual abilities may not have been invented, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” incorporates time travel and a richly imagined alternate reality. Some of the black-and-white snapshots that pepper its pages are Mr. Riggs’s own; some are borrowed from collectors like Robert E. Jackson, whose pictures were exhibited in “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978,” a 2007 show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.


“Miss Peregrine” was not conceived or composed with a young-adult audience in mind, but its central premise — about people who are “peculiar” in various ways and must struggle not only to survive, but also to save the clueless rest of humanity from violent evildoers — is certainly adolescent-friendly.


Ransom Riggs at home in Santa Monica, Calif. Old photographs of strangers inspire his novels. Credit Stephanie Diani for The New York Times


Mr. Rekulak said Quirk’s sales department told him, “You could sell it as an adult book, but you could also sell it in Y.A,” referring to young adult. Because the hero was 16, and his “voice had an earnest quality,” Mr. Rekulak said, “we opted to put it in Y.A.”


The book, though, was hard to market to bookstores as a young-adult title, Mr. Rekulak said, because of the vintage photographs and the black-and-white cover. Quirk took to the Internet, including posting a video trailer made by Mr. Riggs. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” made its debut at No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list, and has sold 1.5 million copies in all formats.


“The creepy factor of the photos was obviously appealing to many adults and teens,” said Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C., where, she said, members of a book group for adults who read young-adult material had enjoyed “Miss Peregrine.”


“Hollow City,” which has a planned 250,000-copy first printing, follows Jacob and his peculiar companions as they make their way through World War II-era London, having left their protector Miss Peregrine’s house under terrifying circumstances.


“They have to find themselves as individuals,” Mr. Riggs said, “and negotiate their power structure and ask who’s the leader, now that Miss Peregrine is not there, and deal with all these external stressors that they haven’t had to face.”


In the months after “Miss Peregrine” was released, Mr. Riggs, who said he had never even read the Harry Potter series, met and was befriended by several established young-adult authors, including Kami Garcia and Melissa de la Cruz.


“I didn’t really know anything about their world, but they were all so incredibly welcoming and generous to me,” he said. Going through a divorce at the time, he struck up a friendship with Tahereh Mafi, author of the best-selling young-adult paranormal romance series Shatter Me, who had also recently ended a marriage. In September, Mr. Riggs married Ms. Mafi, 26.


The two have become something of a golden couple on the young-adult literary scene, with fans lining up to meet them at events and rushing to post their words on Twitter when either shares details of their life together on Twitter. They work side by side at a long desk, with an espresso machine on a nearby countertop and shelves filled with copies of their books in several languages.


When he wrote “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” Mr. Riggs began with the photos and created a story that would make sense of them, but for “Hollow City,” he had to revise his process. “The plot had its own momentum this time,” he said. “I’d know that something had to happen, and I’d have to find a photo to fit it.” Only in later drafts, he said, could he make changes to use photos he loved.


One such change in a chapter involving a near-kidnapping incorporated three quietly devastating pictures: one of an empty country road with three dead horses off to the side, one of soldiers’ bodies piled on a grassy path, and one of distraught men sitting on a wood floor, apparently being held prisoner while light streams into a window above.


“I love them because they’re beautiful photographs of horrible things,” Mr. Riggs said.

A version of this article appears in print on December 31, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Book That Started With Its Pictures.