This fantasy book by Ransom Riggs is published by Quirk Books and written for kids ages 13 to 17. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
A World War II veteran and Jewish refugee, Abe loves nothing better than to tell his grandson Jacob stories about his childhood. But these are no ordinary stories. They are populated with flesh-eating monsters, a hawk that smokes a pipe and children who have peculiar abilities — they levitate, lift heavy boulders with ease or eat using a mouth in the back of their heads. One boy is invisible, and another has a swarm of bees living inside him. As he grows older, Jacob becomes skeptical of his grandfather's stories, even though Abe shows him a cigar box full of old photos to prove he is telling the truth. When Jacob finally challenges his grandfather about the veracity of them, Abe never mentions them again.
Jacob is in high school when Abe begins to lose his mental faculty. As Abe enters this second childhood, the monsters in his stories become a very real terror to him. Jacob's father hides the key to Abe's gun cabinet to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Late one evening, Abe calls Jacob. He is distraught, certain the monsters are after him. Jacob's friend Ricky drives him to his grandfather's house, only to find it ransacked and his grandfather missing. After a brief search, Jacob finds Abe dying in the woods behind his house. He has deep chest wounds, but before he dies, he gives Jacob a cryptic message. Go to the island. Find the bird in the loop on Sept. 3, 1940, on the other side of the old man's grave. In the moonlight, Jacob glimpses one of the monsters from his grandfather's stories, but no one else sees it.
The police conclude that Abe was killed by a pack of wild dogs. Jacob visits a psychiatrist named Dr. Golan and has nightmares about that night. He is afraid to leave the house. He has no idea what Abe's last words mean. On his birthday, his aunt gives him a copy of The Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a book that used to belong to his grandfather. A letter falls out. It is postmarked Cairnholm Island and signed by headmistress Alma LeFay Peregrine, the woman who ran the children's home where Abe lived after fleeing Poland.
After convincing his parents that he should be allowed to spend the summer on Cairnholm, which is off the coast of Wales, Jacob and his father travel to the island. Dr. Golan is surprisingly supportive, saying that the experience will help Jacob demystify his grandfather's stories. At first, it seems that Dr. Golan is right. The house is a moldy, monstrous wreck in a boggy landscape. It was bombed during the war, and the children were killed; no one remains to answer Jacob's questions. All he can find are some pickled organs in jars and an old trunk full of photographs similar to the ones his grandfather showed him when he was a child. As he is in the basement looking at the photographs, he hears voices. A group of children, led by a girl whose palm is flaming, enter and stare at him. Then they run away.
Jacob chases after the girl, who runs through the bog to a Neolithic tomb and disappears inside of it. Jacob crawls into it, following her, but the chamber is empty. Frustrated to the point of quitting and certain that he is having psychotic episodes, he crawls back through the tunnel to the outside world. The perpetually rainy weather has suddenly turned sunny; people are using horses instead of cars, and when Jacob tries to enter the rooms he and his father are renting above the island's pub, the barman stops him and accuses him of being a spy. Jacob bolts, only to have the same girl he chased sneak up from behind and put a knife to his throat, asking if he is a wight, a witch-like, supernatural being. After being chased through town by a group of angry villagers, the girl (whose name is Emma) and an invisible boy (Millard) take Jacob back to the old house to meet Miss Peregrine. When he arrives, instead of seeing a bombed-out shell of a house, Jacob enters a well-maintained home for peculiar children — all of whom have unnatural abilities.
After calming Emma down, Miss Peregrine explains to Jacob that every day in her loop is Sept. 3. She is what’s called an ymbryne and can transform herself into a bird and manipulate time to create a safe haven for peculiar children, who otherwise would be persecuted and misunderstood by common people. Jacob is enchanted by this new world, and especially by Emma, who was Abe's sweetheart many years ago, before he left the loop to fight monsters. For several days, Jacob lives a fairly idyllic existence in the company of the peculiar children, returning to the future each night so his father doesn't become suspicious.
Jacob meets a peculiar boy named Enoch who can make clay dolls live by inserting animal hearts into their chests. Enoch tells Jacob where to find Victor, the boy Miss Peregrine doesn't want him to know about. Jacob enters Victor's room and realizes that the boy in the bed isn't sick but dead. Jacob demands answers, and Emma promises to give them to him later that night.
On another visit to Miss Peregrine's, Jacob meets Emma, and she secretly rows him out to an old shipwreck. The hull lies a few inches beneath the surface. They swim together, kiss for a while, and then Emma asks him to stay. When he hesitates, she insists that he isn't common. Like Abe, Jacob has a special talent — to see monsters.
When they return to the house, they learn that one of Miss Peregrine's fellow ymbrynes, Miss Avocet, has unexpectedly arrived in their loop. She tells them that a pair of wights invaded her loop, and she only just escaped. Wights are kidnapping ymbrynes in loops all over the world, and she came to warn them.
That night, Miss Peregrine explains everything to Jacob. The monsters are known as hollows. They were once peculiar children who tried to conquer time instead of simply suspending it. But their experiment went horribly wrong. Although they made themselves immortal, their lives became a living death. They are driven to consume peculiars, but will eat common people or animals if necessary. If a hollow eats enough peculiars, it transforms into a wight. A wight appears common, except that it has no pupils. It has no special abilities but spends its time seeking peculiar children for its hollow brethren to devour.
Jacob is allowed to return to the present but is warned to keep a close watch for anything unusual. Security within the loop is tripled, and the children are not allowed outside. When Jacob's father meets a man wearing sunglasses at night, and a villager's partially consumed remains are fished out of the ocean, Jacob rushes to tell Miss Peregrine the news. She forbids him to leave the loop, but the children want to know for sure if a hollow is on the island. Since Enoch can raise the dead (briefly), they decide to ask Martin, the dead man, what happened to him.
A group of peculiars, led by Jacob, secretly leave the loop for the village. Martin is being stored on ice in the fishmonger's shop, and he is consulted. He confirms their worst fear, just as a wight steps through the doorway with a hollow behind him. The wight knows who Jacob is, and Jacob realizes that it is his psychologist, Dr. Golan. He tells them that they are kidnapping ymbrynes so they can try to create the biggest time loop in history. He tries to convince Jacob to help them in return for his safety, but Jacob refuses. Golan leaves the children to be eaten, but Bronwyn, an unnaturally strong peculiar girl, throws the trough containing Martin's body at the hollow, and then rams into the shop wall, breaking through and allowing the children to escape.
On their way to the loop, the children hide in an old shack that shepherds use to shelter their sheep during bad weather. Jacob grabs a pair of shears to defend himself. Despite the overwhelming stench of sheep feces, the hollow senses their presence and eats its way through the sheep toward them. They split up, and the hollow follows Jacob. He is about to be eaten when he stabs the hollow in the eyes with the shears, killing it. Emma and Jacob enter the loop, but Golan has already been there. He has kidnapped both Miss Peregrine and Miss Avocet, and has locked the children in the basement. Miss Peregrine, in her bird form, is confined to a birdcage.
Jacob and his friends follow Golan to the ocean, where he used Emma's rowboat to row to a lighthouse. Emma, Jacob, Millard and Bronwyn swim out to the shipwreck, but Golan shoots at them. Millard volunteers to swim further, but gets shot. Bronwyn rips the cargo hold door from the wreck and uses it as a shield so they can approach the lighthouse safely. She throws the door at Golan, injuring him. Emma and Jacob shake the stairs of the old lighthouse that Golan is climbing, and he drops his gun. Despite bleeding profusely, Golan throws the birdcage containing Miss Peregrine over the railing at the top of the lighthouse and into the sea. Emma tries to burn him, and he tries to strangle her until Jacob shoots him in the neck and he, too, falls over the railing. Jacob and Emma rescue Miss Peregrine (who seems trapped in her bird form), but the loop does not reset that night and the house is destroyed. A peculiar who has prophetic powers has a vision about where the wights are taking the ymbrynes, and the children plan to find other loops and stop the hollows and wights from killing all the peculiars and destroying the world. They bury Victor, gather maps and supplies, and leave the island for the mainland the next day.
Miss Peregrine writes Abe, saying she prays for him often. Miss Avocet asks for prayer for her wards. The island's one pub is called the Priest Hole because it has a trap door in the floor that allowed Catholic priests to hide in the basement during the time of Queen Elizabeth, when soldiers were looking for them.
Jacob is closer to his grandfather than to his wealthy and distracted parents who don't approve of the stories Abe tells him. After Abe's death, Jacob feels guilty for not believing his grandfather. Jacob's mother hovers over him, but tells a friend that she is glad to be free of the responsibility of caring for him through the summer. Jacob's father prefers to give him freedom to make mistakes. Although he wants to be a good father, he often fails. He likes to think of Jacob as being popular and adventurous, and he makes jokes about Jacob drinking beer — although Jacob never has. Jacob's father wants to be a nature writer, but has never published a book because he turns to drunkenness and becomes depressed whenever he encounters an obstacle. On one occasion, he confides to Jacob that if he doesn't get a book published soon, Jacob's mother will leave him. He also tells Jacob that his own father was often away while he was growing up and incorrectly assumes that his father was having an affair. He doesn't know that Abe was fighting monsters.
Jacob's psychiatrist, Dr. Golan, is a wight in disguise. He wears contacts to hide the fact that he has no pupils. Jacob unwittingly gives him the information he needs to invade Miss Peregrine's loop.
Miss Peregrine is very proper and rules with an iron hand. Her main concerns are the safety and education of her charges. She withholds knowledge of Abe's death from the children. She also refuses to tell the children any of the good things about the future, fearing that those good things might tempt them to leave the loop. Although they are technically free to leave if they wish, some of the children feel suffocated and imprisoned under her command. They believe that she does not have the courage to face the dangers that lurk outside their safe haven. Jacob feels torn between obeying his father and following Miss Peregrine's instructions.
Other belief systems
Abe's grandfather is Jewish.
In the world of the book, humanity is divided into two groups: the common people and peculiar spirits. Thus, the varied abilities that peculiar children display are genetic anomalies, not magic. Miss Peregrine says that in ancient times, peculiars were often mistaken for gods, shamans or mystics — and still are on the black-magic island of Ambrym. In places where organized religion has taken hold, peculiars are often persecuted and must go into hiding. Birds can time travel, and ymbrynes (who are always female) can assume the form of a bird and manipulate time for others, creating loops to keep peculiar children safe.
An exhibit in a museum is the corpse of a teen who willingly died and was buried in a bog several thousand years ago, believing that this would gain him entrance to heaven.
Horace, a peculiar boy, has prophetic visions. Jacob describes Miss Peregrine's wards as the gods of a strange heaven. Miss Peregrine says her brothers wanted to be gods, but turned themselves into devils instead. The wight-hollow relationship is described as a hierarchy of the damned.
Emma tells her friends to run like the Devil is after them if Jacob sees a hollow. Malthus, the name of a hollow, is also the name of a demon.
After he is shot, Millard mistakes flashlight fish for green angels who offer to take him to heaven.
Swearing is frequent and varied. There are many uses of h---, d---n and p---. God's name is misused often, including multiple instances with d---n. The words s--- and b--tard are used several times. Other profanity used: b--ch and several variations of a--. Jesus' name is misused, and the word Lord is misused. Several British swearwords also appear, including b-gger, b-llocks, bloody and more creative epithets.
Jacob finds his grandfather dying in the woods after he has been attacked by a hollowgast (also known as hollows). Abe has deep gashes in his torso, and his clothes and the ground around him are soaked in blood.
The hollows induce nightmares. They are naked and have gray, wrinkly skin, teeth the size of steak knives and black, tentacle-like tongues that can span the length of a room.
Jeffrey Dahmer is described as a wight who never lost his taste for fresh (human) meat. A shepherd says that Worm once kicked a baby lamb off a cliff, just to see what would happen. Enoch pickles animal organs in home-brewed formaldehyde and stores them in jars in the basement. He also kills his clay men when they won't fight each other, dreams of making a life-sized clay army and creates mutants when he is bored. Victor, one of the peculiar children, is dead. The hollows killed him. Instead of burying him, the children keep his cold body in a bed. (He doesn't decompose because of the loop.) When they want to talk to him, Enoch uses his supply of animal hearts to wake him.
The village museum houses the well-preserved corpse of a boy who was willingly disemboweled, strangled and hit in the head. The hollow Malthus eats sheep, ripping them apart while they're still alive. The gore is explicitly described.
Martin, the village museum owner, is killed and (mostly) consumed by a hollow. The fisherman who find him say his body looks like it has been nibbled by sharks. When the children pay him a postmortem visit, his mangled body — or what's left of it — is described in vivid detail.
Bronwyn throws the ice trough containing Martin's body at the hollow. Jacob stabs the hollow in the eyes with a pair of shears. The wight kidnaps and threatens to shoot Miss Peregrine and Miss Avocet. He throws a cage containing Miss Peregrine (in bird form) into the ocean. Bronwyn throws a cargo hold door at the wight, severely injuring him. Millard, the invisible boy, is shot. Jacob almost drowns in the bog. Emma uses her unique ability to light the wight's head on fire with her bare hands. Jacob shoots the wight in the neck, and he topples into the sea. The wight suggests that peculiars could make common people their slaves. Emma burns the wight, and the wight attempts to choke Emma. Men on a submarine shoot at Emma and Jacob.
When Emma first meets Jacob, she threatens to cut his throat. Bombs fall during air raids throughout the day and also when the loop resets each night.
Jacob makes coarse sexual jokes. Jacob also describes a species of bird on Cairnholm Island (the Manx Shearwater) as giving his father an ornithology boner. When he first telephones the Priest Hole, Jacob describes the background noise as sounding like a Grecian orgy or frat party. Someone's lawn ornaments are described as a flamingo orgy.
Emma flirts with Jacob: pinching him, hugging him, putting her head on his shoulder, putting her hand on his knee and posing seductively for him to take her picture. She kisses him on the cheek and sends him air kisses.
Jacob says he is not used to making out with hot girls. He doesn't want to kiss Emma because he feels that dating his grandfather's ex-girlfriend is tantamount to incest. Emma wrestles Jacob's belt and pants off when she wants him to go swimming with her. Jacob thinks that swimming in cold water wearing only boxer shorts is not a great situation, especially since he is face to face with Emma. Emma and Jacob kiss multiple times.
Abe sends Emma a picture of him kneeling on a cylindrical bomb and asks if it reminds her of anything.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Jacob's psychiatrist, Dr. Golan, pretends to be someone he isn't to gain information.
Have you ever thought someone was your friend and then found out that the person wanted something from you?
Tell what happened.
If that hasn't happened to you, how would you feel if it did?
- Jacob's father thinks that Abe was having an affair because he spent so little time at home.
What was Abe really doing?
How do you respond when people misjudge someone because they don't know the whole story?
What should your response be?
- Jacob is attracted to Emma, but he doesn't think it's right to kiss her.
What does he end up doing?
Do you ever do the opposite of what you think is right?
Tell about one time this happened.
What could you have done different?
- Enoch believes he has the right to kill his clay men because he gave them life.
What is faulty about his belief?
How should the clay men be treated?
- Why does Jacob lie to his father about where he is going and whom he is with?
What might Jacob's father have done if Jacob had told him the truth?
What could you have said to Jacob to help him do the right thing?
Drugs/Alcohol: Miss Peregrine uses a mixture of coca-wine and brandy to revive Miss Avocet from a faint. She drinks coca-wine to stay awake all night, but refuses to give any to Jacob. The Priest Hole sells liquor, and a contingent of regular drunks gathers daily to drink their fill. Worm raps about liking to get wrecked (intoxicated).
Smoking/Tobacco: Jacob's friend Ricky chain-smokes cigarettes and chews tobacco. Miss Peregrine smokes a pipe. Emma poses with a pipe in a picture she sends to Abe. There is a tobacconist shop in the village.
Lying: Jacob regularly lies to his father and his psychiatrist.
Nudity: Millard, the invisible boy, avoids wearing clothes to remain unnoticed by people around him. Miss Peregrine is naked when she turns from a bird into a human, but keeps herself hidden by a sheet, which she then wraps around herself.
Images: Old black-and-white photographs constitute an essential part of this book. Some children may find them disturbing.
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