The inspiration for a story can come from almost anywhere. I learned this first-hand a few years ago when I was inspired by some evocative old snapshots I found at a flea market. I wanted to know more about the people in them, but the photos were anonymous—long-disconnected from whomever had taken and discarded them—so instead I created their stories myself. The result was my first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. It’s enjoyed some remarkable success, especially for a book from a debut novelist—there’s even a movie in the works! None of which would be happening if I hadn’t let a handful of musty pictures tell me a story. Stories are everywhere; it’s just a matter of tuning our ears to listen for them.
Given the way Miss Peregrine is told, with the photos I found woven through the narrative, it’s proven to be a fascinating conversation-starter for students and teachers of creative writing. Students can easily find photos of their own to use as writing prompts, either on the Internet or, better yet, in the attics and closets of parents and grandparents. (I discovered that it’s nearly impossible to write about old photographs without becoming interested in their history. There’s something fascinating about the immediacy of a photograph, no matter how old it is; though a picture might have been taken a hundred years ago, it is always, in some sense, now.)
The story itself, though it takes some decidedly fantastical turns, has one foot firmly rooted in history. I’m a firm believer that the real world is more dramatic than any story we can make up about it, and when writing I try to draw upon real events whenever I can. The experience of European Jews during World War II is central to the book, as is that of British civilians living under the terrifying threat of German bombing raids. Though the world of the peculiar children is fantasy, it exists alongside and frequently intersects with our own.
In many ways, Miss Peregrine is a story about tolerance. The peculiar children are people who’ve been shunned, persecuted and forced into hiding because of their differentness—but it is also this differentness that enables them. Though the children have special abilities—one can make fire with her bare hands, another can levitate, yet another is blessed with incredible strength—they are not superheroes. The levitating girl, for instance, must wear heavy, leaden shoes to prevent her from floating away. A prophetic boy named Horace is plagued by terrible dreams. Their peculiarities, like the gifts of we “normal” people, exist along a spectrum of ability and disability.
Above all, my goal was to write a riveting story. I’ve received e-mails from hundreds of readers telling me they “couldn’t put it down,” including many from teenagers who say they rarely read books of their own volition, but finished Miss Peregrine in just a few days. (Those are my favorites.) If my book can turn even a few reluctant readers on to fiction, I’ll be very happy. With your help, though, I hope it can reach many more.