Arts, Books — June 27, 2012 12:02 pm

Ransom Riggs’ Home for Adolescent Readers

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I have something to tell you, and I don’t quite know how to put it. Honestly, I’m afraid of what you’ll think. I guess I should just get it over with. So, here goes:

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I belong to a book club.

And not just any book club. A “young adult” book club. To clarify, the members of the book club are all regular adults, but–with the small exception of two titles over the last two years–we read and discuss exclusively young adult literature. As such, I will occasionally review young adult novels here. Luckily they’re all the rage right now, so I’m gonna go ahead and assume you guys are down with it. (That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? “Down with it”?)

Most recently we read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011). I had been excited to get to this book for a few months based on the cover alone. I mean, look at that thing! It makes me want to track down old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark to watch online. Or Unsolved Mysteries. But then I remember how intensely creepy those shows were and the nightmares they gave me and I decide just to stick to the book.

Which was thoroughly enjoyable, by the way. Some of my fellow book-clubbers were actually disappointed at how un-creepy Miss Peregrine was compared to their expectations based on its aesthetics. And it is true that the story goes in a direction that’s surprising given the initial impression that the book makes. Within the pages of Riggs novel (his first, btw) are scattered images of particularly eerie antique photos: one features a dog with the head of a boy; another the back of someone’s head painted like a clown and sporting what appears to be an actual mouth; and another of one girl standing over a pond that shows the reflections of two girls in it. Like I said, eerie.

Instead of going down the old-timey ghost story road that these photos suggest, however, the story takes quite the sci-fi bent. There are still elements of fantasy that keep it from being too heady–I mean, we’re not talking Battlestar Galactica here–but it’s not scary. And as much as I was looking forward to the creep factor, I am an even bigger fan of being surprised by an artist; so I, unlike my reading buddies, was delighted by this novel.

The book also impressed me in terms of how appropriate it actually is for its intended demographic. One thing that comes up in almost every meeting of the book club is whether or not the text we’re discussing is actually good reading for “young adults.” It’s a tricky, rather relative designation. Some books have seemed better for younger readers (5th or 6th grade, say) and some have been quite obviously beyond the intellectual and/or emotional capabilities of most high school students.

In my opinion, Miss Peregrine hits the nail on the head. As I read through it, I kept thinking how much I would have loved it as a teenager. It’s spooky without being frightening, it follows a twisty-turny plot full of genuine surprises, and the protagonist–a high school-aged boy–is on a mission that involves risk and sacrifice.

There is something more, too; something I think can only be appreciated in retrospect by someone who’s gone through the adolescent process and come out the other side. It is this: that the trajectory of the main character in Rigg’s story echoes well the process of individuation with which every teenager you encounter is dealing. He needs something to do with himself that means more than the retail job that his family’s business guarantees him. He needs his own reason to live–to try, to fight. And though he harbors no real ill will toward his parents, much of what happens in the book involves him learning, on his own initiative, to take care of himself without the aid of his well-meaning dad. For these reasons, I imagine many a “young adult” reader will open up to and be moved by this book.

I was recently made aware of a quote from the author Richard Peck, which says (the words here are slightly different that the version told to me):

“[A young adult novel] ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived.” (Found here.)

Miss Peregrine ends quite open indeed, with a lot of “yet to be lived.”  Many of my adult friends were put off by this, sick of the trend toward serialization which seems to be, at this point, only in the interest of making more money. Well, making money as a writer–that’s a whole other can of worms. But for now I want to say that Riggs’ book fits Peck’s description precisely; and, though it could be that it is that way only so a sequel can be written, the story’s final direction still works to resonate with the place in which a young adult reader finds herself: at the brink of a great new adventure, with nothing but possibility as far as the eye can see.

I guess it’s about time for us to come to our end, too. The truth is, if you get nitpicky there are a number of flaws to the book. But I’d like to remind you that fiction writing is hard. Good fiction writing, anyway; and more for some than for others of course. Yet Riggs really does pull it off. And he doesn’t just make up a whole story and then write it down in nice pretty words–he makes up a story that will mean something to teenagers. Who don’t like adults. Or reading. So, good on you, mate.

YA literature isn’t for everyone, it’s true. But if you’re into it, or are curious, or were obsessed with Are You Afraid of the Dark because Snick, duh!, then I definitely suggest checking out this book.

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