The novel's protagonist, Jacob Portman, is a believable loner who doesn't feel connected to his teenage existence. Jacob's emotional angst isn't foreign to the teenage experience, but Riggs navigates this disconnection between Jacob and his assumed path in life so that the emergence of the peculiar feels like it was lurking there all along.
After propelled into motion by the horrific death of his grandfather, Jacob goes to Whales in an effort to understand his deeply rooted emotional and psychological connection with his grandfather. The inciting incident is well crafted and the trip to Whales feels like a natural choice in trying to introduce Jacob to his grandfather's origins. Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, was sent to an orphanage on the Welsh island from Poland during World War II.
The orphanage was the centerpiece of Abraham's seemingly tall tales about children with special abilities. Abraham's photographic evidence of these children and his last words are all used as clues leading Jacob to search for some answers about what may have been responsible for killing his grandfather. What Jacob finds in this foreign and eerily imagined setting leads him into another world within his own, a world he always secretively hoped existed but logically dismissed.
This discovery of a world within our own is a common fantasy formula, but Riggs does a good job at balancing reality with the time warped scenario of Miss Peregrine's School. I don't want to spoil the book's most interesting reveals, but I will say that the new world Jacob discovers instills him with greater purpose than he could ever have hoped to achieve in his real world life. The adventure aspect is filled with horror-fantasy monsters and mysterious situations that help establish a very specific and often melancholy tone.
In the back of the book there was an interview with Random Riggs about the use of the photographs. Apparently, Riggs was fascinated with collecting vintage photography and the photos he uses in the book were all photos he found or they were photos from other people's collections. When asked if the photos fueled the development of the story, Riggs admitted that the photos not only inspired the idea for the story but also helped with plot development along the way. This is definitely an interesting marriage between story and images and while the story is strong enough to stand on its own the photos are capable of instilling a whole other layer of intrigue. It was the cover of the book that made me want to read it, so despite my mixed feelings about showing rather than telling, the photograph's are a part of the experience of this novel.
It became clear to me by the end of the story that Riggs was concerned with making sure the story flowed well into the climax and denouement because of the continuation into the story's sequel, Hollow City. There were times where I thought the pacing was a bit too slow and that the build to the climax was better executed than the climax itself. The risk with any series is that the push into the next installment skews the elements of structure in making the story a complete whole. While Peculiar Children provided an excellent introduction to this new world, it felt mainly like that: an introduction. I had some problems with how the end felt anti-climatic compared to the slow pace build, and that the run into the next book detracts from what this story could have done differently in terms of greater reveals in the climax.
All in all, I feel like the book was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone who likes young adult fantasy with melancholic tones. The movie rights have already been bought and the film is to be directed by Tim Burton with a 2016 release date. I feel like Tim Burton is the right choice in turning this story shaped by disturbing and dark photos into a unique cinematic experience. I'm especially excited to see how the island and orphanage are brought to life on screen since Riggs did such a great job of developing the setting.