Old Photographs

I recently wrote, as part of the Thirty Day Book Challenge, a post about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs. It came recommended by my students, and as I wrote in the entry for that day’s challenge (favorite Y/A novel), I really enjoyed the book. My favorite part, however, was not necessarily the narrative, although it was certainly enjoyable. The best part of the book, for me at least, were all the old photographs.

My great-grandmother's engagement photo, taken sometime in the mid-1920s.

I have always loved looking at old photos, especially of people who I don’t know, and thinking of all the possible back-stories that could have led to the moment the photograph was taken. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with four generations living under the same roof, and when I was young I would spend countless hours lost in my great-grandmother’s photo albums, creating different stories each time I leafed through those pages. There was a certain attractive combination of mystery and nostalgia (even for something I never knew) when I looked at old photographs, that exerted an almost gravitational force. I would really lose myself in my great-grandmother’s old photo albums,  being unconsciously careful not to tear the brittle, black pages, but entirely consumed by all those unknown histories. Now, as I take photos documenting my own family’s life, I often wonder if many years from now someone will be sifting through them, creating their own narratives for us, inventing our pasts, and wondering whatever became of us.

Last night, as I was laying in bed and catching up on some reading, I came across this on LibriCritic; a video created and narrated by Ransom Riggs about his passion for old photographs.



Day 6: Favorite Young Adult Novel

Before I begin this post, an admission… I don’t think that I have ever read a “Young Adult” novel, even as a young adult. I have a vague memory of being forced to read a book titled My Darling, My Hamburger my freshman year of high school, and I also remember finding the book as ridiculously bad as the title. As a result, although it’s the only young-adult book I’ve read, I would hardly call it a favorite, and my memory of it is too dim to even begin to write about it.

I will also admit that I considered skipping day six of the challenge entirely, or maybe just stating that I didn’t and hadn’t read any young adult fiction and leaving it at that. But that changed when I spoke to some of my students. I casually mentioned this book challenge to one of my groups, and quickly the class was consumed by reading suggestions from the students. I was so thrilled by their enthusiasm that I decided that we could take a break from history for a while and talk about books. After a good half-hour of plot summaries and excited interruptions by other students with their own suggestions, I was given a short-list of books, (The Book Thief, Hunger Games, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian) and I promised to buy and read one of them for today’s challenge.

During my lunch time, I headed over to the nearest bookstore and weighed my options. The Book Thief looked excellent, but I didn’t think that one night would be enough time to give it a good, thorough read, and the other books just didn’t appeal to me, except for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I’ve always had a bit of an attraction to darker stories, and as I flipped through the pages of the book I was immediately captured by the Victorian era photographs of very odd, and a bit creepy, children. And what a perfectly Gothic title. The decision was made and I walked out with the book.

The story, written by Ransom Riggs, brings those photos to life as the characters that populate this eerie little book. The protagonist is Jacob, a sixteen year old boy who begins to discover that there is much more to both him and the world around him than he could have ever imagined, and that the seemingly apocryphal stories his grandfather used to tell him were grounded in strange, and often disturbing truths. The story itself unfolds in a home for “peculiar children” on a windswept island off of the coast of Wales. The house, although destroyed in a Nazi bombing in 1940, still exists in some kind of a temporal loop, where these children remain safe and hidden. After the sudden and violent death of his grandfather, Jacob embarks on a quest for answers, armed only with the strange photographs his grandfather used to show him, and a mysterious letter. The story that followed was enjoyable, if not a little predictable, and although I did get pretty engrossed in the narrative, I thoroughly disliked the ending which made a sequel all but necessary (and after checking the author’s website, part two has already been confirmed).

What I loved the most about this book were the photographs, and at times the descriptions of the characters that seemed to make those photos come to life. I’ve always tended to get lost in old photographs, creating stories in my mind about who the people were, and what kind of lives they lived. I did it often as a child, constructing entire worlds from my great-grandmother’s treasure trove of old turn-of-the-century photographs, and I still occasionally find myself doing it, specially when looking at those same old amber-hued images. In this book, Riggs does the very same thing except he takes it much further, he builds an entire narrative based on a group of old photos, giving those strangers both a voice and a story. That the photos he based the book on were filled with strange and eerie images of seemingly supernatural children just added the enjoyment that I derived from the book.

As an interesting side note, Riggs acquired the photographs used in his book from the archives of several major collectors. After looking at nearly 100,000 photos, he finally settled on several hundred, out of which he selected 44 to use in this book.