Pictures and prose: Creating new stories for old photographs

Hollow City pics.

Ransom Riggs' desire to create new stories for old photographs resulted in an intriguing series of books.

With their ability to capture a moment in time, most photographs evoke a particular memory or story. But what about those photos that have been left behind with no context or connection? The ones that have been, in one way or another, “lost”? Could they perhaps become part of a new story?

Spectacular results often have their roots in simple ideas, and the immensely successful Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series of young adult (YA) books by Ransom Riggs is just that. Born from Riggs’ desire to give new stories to the quirky and often downright strange vintage photographs he unearthed at flea markets, the books are a new way of telling stories. 

Weaving in these real-life found photographs into his fictional narrative, the results are equal parts refreshing and haunting.

Picture story: Ransom Riggs caught the literary world's attention with his found photos and story about young people learning to find themselves and their place in society. - Photo by Tahereh Mafi
Picture story: Ransom Riggs caught the literary world’s attention with his found photos and story about young people learning to find themselves and their place in society. — Photo by Tahereh Mafi

In an exclusive e-mail interview with Star2, the Los Angeles-based Riggs, who is also a filmmaker, explains that his fascination with vintage photographs started early.

“I grew up in Florida, the land of flea markets and antique shops, and my grandmother used to take me along on antique-hunting expeditions on Sunday afternoons. That’s where I discovered that you could buy people’s old cast-off family photographs for pennies each. I found a photo of a girl from the 1930s who looked eerily like someone I’d had a crush on at summer camp, and there was some magic in that – it stuck with me.”

That sense of eerie familiarity is perfectly captured in Riggs’ books, where the photos somehow manage to tell two stories: one about the narrative at hand, and another, more abstract one, about who they could have been in real life. 

It is often a disconcerting experience to realise that the people in the pictures, whom you soon start to think of as Riggs’ characters, were also real people who had existed outside of the books.


The series obviously struck a chord with readers. Riggs’ first book, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, published in 2011, was an immediate hit, spending 63 weeks on The New York Times bestsellers list. The sequel, Hollow City, came out earlier this year to great acclaim. And while most YA novels these days seem to boast a movie deal, few can make the claim of having the master of the macabre himself, Tim Burton, set to direct.

Telling a story about young people fascinated Riggs from the beginning – in the afterword to Miss Peregrine’s Home, he says “... the strangest and most intriguing (photos I found) were always of children”.

He explains in our interview: “I think that was the story I needed to tell, about young people negotiating their paths to adulthood, though I didn’t tell it any differently than I would have if I’d written an ‘adult’ novel.”

Such distinctions, he adds, are more restrictive than relevant.


“I think the distinctions are thinning more every day, and will soon be meaningless,” says Riggs, who is married to fellow YA author Tahereh Mafi (author of the Shatter Me series).

In fact, the series’ exploration of dark themes woven in with historical events makes it difficult to simply categorise the books as simply for younger readers. Dealing with sombre subjects like bigotry, psychosis and isolation, adults will find just as much to keep them turning the pages.

Miss Peregrine’s Home introduces us to 16-year-old Jacob Portman, a privileged boy in Florida, who grew up on a steady diet of fantastical stories told by his grandfather. A horrifying family tragedy, however, causes Jacob to wonder if those stories were made-up after all, especially when he unearths a collection of photographs depicting some decidedly odd children.

In search of the truth, Jacob arrives at a remote island in Wales, where he discovers the ruined remains of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And while the home has been abandoned for decades, he soon realises that somehow, those children may still be there.

Travelling back and forth from present to past, the book introduces us to the “peculiars”: children with unusual abilities who needed to be hidden away for their own safety.

Riggs explains in an article that he uses the photos to ensure fantastical elements are grounded in reality. '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.'
Riggs explains in an article that he uses the photos to ensure fantastical elements are grounded in reality. ‘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.’

Hollow City, meanwhile, takes the story back to the past, intertwining the horrors of World War II with the journey of its characters, using the book’s fantasy premise to reflect on matters that are all too real.

Riggs shares that when he wrote the first book, he didn’t know if any more would follow.

“But I really hoped there would be, since the possibilities for the world and characters seemed so limitless. I built in a lot of room to expand, and when the book became a bestseller, I was able to dive back into the story and grab hold of all the threads I’d left dangling,” he says.

The nature of the books demanded an unusual way of writing, one that depended not just on plot but also the photos to further the story. While the initial story and certain characters were inspired by photos he had found, he also found himself looking for specific photos to fit into a plot idea.

“It’s a push and pull,” he says. “While the photos came first, when I found the story needed to go in a very specific direction, I had to look for photos that fit, rather than changing the story to fit photos I already had.”

Finding the necessary photos, however, was quite the task. To find the initial 50 snapshots that appear in Miss Peregrine’s Home, Riggs estimates that he would have looked at more than 100,000 photos, in flea markets, antique shops and hobbyists’ private collections.

Currently working on the third and final book as well as consulting on the movie adaptation (the movie is slated for release next year), Riggs has plenty to keep him busy.

“The third book will have lots more adventure and peril, and even more darkness,” he says. “The ‘peculiars’ interact a bit more with the present than they have before, and the culture clash between our world and theirs is really fun to write. I’ve known for a long time how the story’s going to end, but it’s how I’d get there I wasn’t sure of!”

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