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Found photography drives 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'

May 17, 2011 |  6:00 am

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The best part of the new novel "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," (besides that deliciously gothic title) is a series of black-and-white photos sprinkled throughout the book--a young woman carrying a black parasol with a net over her face; two little boys in eerie clown make-up, one of them with a streamer coming out of his mouth; a little girl standing over a pond in a cemetery, her image reflected in double in the water below.  And of course, the amazing cover shot:  a little girl in white stockings hovering about 6 inches off the ground.

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is the first novel by Ransom Riggs, an L.A. based writer and filmmaker. It's a gothic tale with a teenage protagonist, which is why the publisher is marketing it as a young adult novel, but I read it and liked it, and I'm in my 30s. The book came about when Riggs started collecting found photography at flea markets and swap meets about three years ago.  He kept coming across strange creepy pictures of kids and felt like he wanted to do something with them.  "I was thinking maybe they could be a book, like [Edward Gorey's] 'The Gashlycrumb Tinies,' " he said. Double_reflection "Rhyming couplets about kids who had drowned. That kind of thing."

Riggs had just completed his first book, "The Sherlock Holmes Handbook" for Quirk Books and asked his editor what he could do with the photos. The editor suggested the pictures might inform a novel. "I was like, that sounds like something I kind of always wanted to do," Riggs said. The title came to him immediately and he started constructing a story about a home for children with special powers. He would cast the characters in his novel from the photos that he came across.

Really great found photography is hard to come by, so Riggs started contacting the big guns in the found photography world, including Robert E. Jackson, a collector whose photos were featured in a show at the National Gallery. Jackson and others opened up their archives to Riggs and allowed him to borrow whatever images he needed (a list of images and the collections they are from are in the back of his book).  After looking at close to a 100,000 photos, he eventually amassed a pool of 300 to 400  usable pictures and whittled that down to the 44 images he used in the book.

 "There were a lot that I didn't get to use, but I'm hoping they can be in future books," he said, "a giant league of peculiar children."

If you'd like to know more about "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," you can read the prologue and the first chapter of the book at Quirkbooks.com.

-- Deborah Netburn

Photos: "The Snacking Ballerinas," top left, the book's cover, top center, "Miss Peregrine," top right, "The Reflecting Pool," bottom. Credits: The collection of Robert E. Jackson; Quirk Books; the collection of Ransom Riggs; the collection of Peter Cohen.

 

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