What sets Ransom Riggs' debut novel apart from other young adult fantasies is not the text but the illustrations. The bulk of them are, as an afterword notes, "authentic, vintage found photographs," from Riggs' collection and those of other vernacular photography enthusiasts. In fact, the novel began with the pictures, which Riggs used to guide the construction of the narrative. This unconventional source of ideas lends the invented milieu a strange, slightly disjointed quality that works for the book rather than against it, creating an appropriately quirky feel that separates the book from the bulk of "teenager discovers magical secret" titles. Factor in the creation of a fairly realistic teen protagonist, and you have a title engaging enough to recommend to YA genre readers of all ages.
Jacob Portman thought he was an ordinary boy destined to lead an ordinary life, but given the type of novel he's in that's obviously not going to last. The stories his grandfather told about a children's home in World War II era Wales and its residents with bizarre talents used to fascinate him, but now he thinks they're just a metaphor for a life lived in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust. That belief isn't destined to last either. When his grandfather dies in a horrifying way that makes Jacob wonder if it was all true, there seems to be no solution but a trip to Wales. What he finds there is even weirder than he imagined, and even more dangerous. The hidden world his grandfather alluded to is very real, and in great danger, and whether he wants to or not, Jacob has a role to play in its fate.
All of which may sound, to those widely-read in the genre, like standard fare. What elevates it is that the fantastic elements, and the way they fit together, are less traditional. Since the novel takes its time in revealing them, a reviewer shouldn't give anything away, but they blend fantasy, science fiction, and horror in a way that doesn't feel restrained or defined by the conventions of any of those genres. It helps that even the non-supernatural elements, from Jacob's unconventional best friend to the way of life of the remote Welsh island where he makes his discoveries, are equally striking, offbeat and amusing but not clumsily or cheesily so. And the wild invention is balanced by the realistic characterization of Jacob, whose relationship with his parents is edged with authentic personality flaws and failures of communication. The first-person narration is only partly successful-- at times Jacob sounds like an ordinary teenager, at others like a writer trying to achieve atmospheric effect-- but it hits often enough to work, and witty asides ("my mother was loath to pass up even the flimsiest excuse for a celebration-- she once invited friends over for our cockatiel's birthday") help keep the prose involving and the pace lively.
Another part of what makes the setting feel rich is that much of it remains unexplored. Only some of the peculiar children of the title have had their powers and personalities revealed, and there's a wider community of unusual types to be discovered. The ending is more of a new beginning that promises further adventures, so it's no surprise to learn that Riggs is currently gathering photos on which to base a sequel. If it puts the same distinctive spin on teen fantasy as its predecessor, it'll be a book to watch out for.