by Ransom Riggs, author of Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Children (Quirk Books, January 2014)
Storytelling began with pictures. We find ancient ones painted on cave walls and carved into rocks. The most treasured books of yesteryear were “illuminated” with illustrated designs throughout their text and margins. Since childhood, my imagination has been fired by photography, so when it came to writing my first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it only seemed natural that I would include photographs along with my words. They weren’t photos I took or created in Photoshop, but real snapshots that I found, in flea markets and in the attics of collectors—most of them old family photos that had been abandoned and orphaned, much like the children in my story. I felt like I was in some sense rescuing the photos and giving them a new life through the story I was telling—even if that story was fiction, and had little to do with who the people in the photos might’ve actually been. (I’m sure, for instance, that my photo of a skinny boy lifting a giant boulder wasn’t actually a photo of a supernaturally strong kid, but that the rock was made of foam, or something—but there’s no way of knowing for sure!)
Because I didn’t know the real stories behind my photos, I had to make up new, fantastical ones. Fantastical because the story of Miss Peregrine is partly fantasy, about a boy who stumbles upon a Welsh home for children who can do very peculiar things, like make fire with their bare hands and levitate. And yet, despite these elements, Miss Peregrine has one foot planted in reality, too. The photographs help reinforce that. Whenever the story seems about to veer into pure fantasy, a photograph comes along, and the reader sees some of the bizarre things they’ve just been reading about with their own eyes. (You believe your eyes, don’t you?) So the pictures do double-duty: they make it easier to suspend your natural disbelief in the more fantastical parts of the story, and they help to root the story in history. Because Miss Peregrine is part historical fiction, too. My protagonist’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, something that’s very much at the heart of the story (though that subplot doesn’t take up many pages). World War II looms around every corner in the book. The children live in a time loop that keeps them locked in September 3rd, 1940, and outside that loop is a war-torn world of enemy bombers and submarines and the looming menace of Nazi Germany. Real photos from that period, of warplanes haunting the sky or soldiers posing with unexploded bombs, are peppered throughout the book.
In Hollow City, my follow-up to Miss Peregrine, the children are cast out into that war-torn world. In order to save Miss Peregrine, they must make their way to London, where the infamous Blitz is turning the city into a smoking ruin. (A hollowed city, as it were.) Along the way the children are hounded by monsters, discover more loops, meet strange new peculiar children, and fall in with a menagerie of peculiar animals, but all this fantasy—and the disintegration of their peculiar world—are connected to the disintegration of the real world, as it played out in history. I’m not interested in fantasy for fantasy’s sake—I like my fantasy to ask questions about the real world, the world you and I live in. If I’ve been successful, Hollow City not only engages with some of the most fascinating chapters of twentieth-century history, but it also asks important questions about what it means to be good, about the nature of family, and about the difficult choices we face when our dreams don’t quite measure up to reality. But above all, I hope you and your students have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.
Ransom Riggs is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. He is also the author of Talking Pictures and The Sherlock Holmes Handbook. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and lives in Los Angeles.