Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–Ransom Riggs


I am late to this party.  A colleague of mine recommended this book two years ago.  I put it on my wish list, finally bought it this summer, and just read it when our German exchange student began raving about it.

My nine-year-old, who is a big reader, tried to join us, but the beginning was just too slow.  I have to agree with her.  The novel opens with Jacob Portman’s relationship with his odd grandfather, who tries to convince him there are monsters in the world with very specific stories and photographs, and who dies a traumatic death in the woods, which Jacob witnesses and sends him into therapy.  His parents and therapist explain these odd stories away with the fact that Jacob’s grandfather was a Jewish child in WWII Europe whose family were killed by the Nazis.  The monsters, they reassure Jacob, were the Nazis.  Jacob, however, cannot get over the nightmares that began when his grandfather was murdered and, when he discovers that the school his grandfather talked about is on a Welsh island, he talks his therapist into supporting his trip there and brings along his ne’er-do-well bird-watching father with some enticing rare birds.

Jacob finds a bombed-out dilapidated building that had been a school and a trunk with more pictures like those his grandfather had showed him.  Eventually he stumbles upon a “loop,” a day that repeats over and over, the day the school was bombed by Nazis, and he finds the children and the teacher that featured in his grandfather’s stories.

Once Jacob is on the island, the story moves fairly quickly.  Much of the charm of the story comes from the vintage photographs, which Ransom gathered from collectors and uses to illustrate the story.

This novel did a lot of interesting set up work, but, given the slow start, I am somewhat surprised it became as popular as it did.  The peculiar children have powers, but they are not amazing powers.  In fact, most of the powers on their own create problems for the children rather than empowerment.

I am interested to see how this translates to film this month and to read the later volumes in the series, one of which was just released this week.

Finished 8/2016


Wonder–R.J. Palacio


This book has become a cult classic among middle grade readers and adults alike.  Once I met August, it was easy to see why. The story was born one afternoon when the author was in an ice cream shop with her children and they saw a child with a facial deformity.  The author’s youngest child asked an awkward question and, thinking to spare the other child’s feelings, she rushed herself and her children out of the ice cream shop.  Later, she repented deeply as she thought of how the sight of her and her children fleeing must have made the other child (and her parent) feel. 

August is that child on the page.  He’s going into fifth grade and has been homeschooled due to numerous surgeries, a feeding tube, and general health issues.  All those surgeries later, there’s no feeding tube, but his facial deformity is such that he tells us he won’t describe his face because whatever we imagine, it’s probably worse.  It’s up to the other characters to give us an image of August’s outside while the various perspectives give us a picture of his inside.  The intervening event that kicks off the novel is his parents’ decision to enter him in a mainstream prep school.  Middle school is horrifying as a “regular” kid, much less a kid with a severe facial deformity.  August has all kinds of support from his parents, his principal, and a team of kids the principal hand picks to mentor him, but the kids who are genuine and those who are nice for appearances become clear (as does the parental root of their values in a particularly awful scene where one mom photoshops August out of the class picture and circulates it to other interested parents). 

August is not perfect.  He cries, he rages, he pities himself, he sticks to a world of Auggie’s problems while his older sister struggles to maintain her self esteem as a freshman in high school and the sister of the kid with the weird face whose parents have devoted their lives to making things as right as possible for him since his birth.  Via’s chapters are among my favorites.  Her grandmother sees her in a way her parents cannot and my heart broke when Via tells about her grandmother’s death.  Via is a self-motivated, highly organized young woman because she has to be.  She doesn’t whine about it, however.  She just tells it like it is and she admits that starting a new school where not everyone knows about her brother has been a refreshing change that, despite her guilt, she is not ready to give up, to the point of keeping from her family a role in the school play. 

Auggie is bullied, but the inner strength his parents have instilled and supported in him keeps him going and allows him to be an agent for change for those around him. 

My middle-grade reader did not like this book.  It was predictable, he said.  Isn’t part of the joy the journey, to see how August gets from point A to point B and what happens along the way?  He was not sold, but I was.

Palacio’s impetus for writing the novel hit home with me and probably many others who have acted similarly, wanting to do the right thing as well as the comfortable thing (for us) without making ourselves really consider how it feels to be the “monster” from whom everyone flees.  August is a wonder for changing my perspective, for forcing me to face my own discomfort and fears.  I’m ready for the awkward question.  God creates many wonders, each one unique.  Isn’t that a wonder?

Finished 2/13/14

Mockingjay–Suzanne Collins

When I finished Mockingjay, my son asked me if I was happy.  “Yes.  And no,”  I said.  And why?  “I got what I wanted, but it’s so dark.”

Collins’ vision of government and power mirrors that of our current culture and particularly of the young people about whom she is writing.  Katniss remains as suspicious and wary as she seems to have been since the death of her father and the end of her childhood and, as before, this approach serves her well.  The bad guys are bad, but the good guys might be, also.  Like the early Harry Potter novels, it becomes harder to tell who’s on which side and if there are clear-cut sides.  Everyone’s motives are complex, including Katniss’.  Gale’s anger smolders and flames as he works with Betee to design weapons that play on emotions as part of the trap.  Peeta calls for a cease-fire and is branded a traitor, then broken on Panem television.

The frustrations I had with Catching Fire as Katniss’ love triangle with Gale and Peeta intensified were allayed after Katniss overhears a conversation between Gale and Peeta about whom she will choose when the rebellion is over.  Gale says she will need whomever will help her survive and, for once, she stands up for her emotions, even if only in her own head.  She blames them both, Gale for saying it, Peeta for not refuting it and then thinks, “especially when every emotion I have has been taken and exploited by the Capitol or the rebels.  At the moment, the choice would be simple.  I can survive just fine without either of them.”

Survival in body is one thing; in heart and mind is another, as Katniss learned after surviving the Games.

All of the novel’s skepticism boils down to relying on one’s self and love as the trilogy comes full circle.  The Hunger Games end with the subtle quenching of hunger of the most basic kind.  Love is real and small acts of kindness fight the darkness.  But the darkness is there.

And so I close the cover, happy, and unhappy.  Reassured, and disturbed.  And hungry for more.

Finished 4/14/2012