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Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) - Sidelights

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Richard Peck's books on such important teen-age problems as suicide, unwanted pregnancy, death of a loved one, and rape have won critical praise for their realism and emotional power. Peck has written over a dozen very popular books for young adults, books that help young readers to develop self-confidence. He has also written adult novels that show men and women who are not confined to roles that traditionally belong to their gender. When writing for young adults, Peck told Roger Sutton in a School Library Journal interview, he thinks about potential readers: "As I'm typing I'm trying to look out over the typewriter and see faces. I don't certainly want to 'write for myself' because I'm trying to write across a generation gap." In books for both age groups, Peck told Jean F. Mercier in Publishers Weekly, he tries to "give readers leading characters they can look up to and reasons to believe that problems can be solved." The excellence of his work has been recognized by numerous awards, including the American Library Association's Young Adult Author Achievement Award in 1990 and the Newbery Medal in 2001 for A Year down Yonder.

Peck became familiar with contemporary adolescent problems while teaching high school. He liked his students, but after several years became discouraged and quit; teaching "had begun to turn into something that looked weirdly like psychiatric social work." Peck decided instead to write books for teenagers that featured the problems he had seen. "Ironically, it was my students who taught me to be a writer, though I had been hired to teach them," he said in a speech published in Arkansas Libraries. "They taught me that a novel must entertain first before it can be anything else." He observed that young adults are most concerned with winning approval from their peers and seeking reassurance from their reading material. With these needs in mind, Peck writes about the passage from childhood to adulthood. He believes that in a young adult novel, typically "the reader meets a worthy young character who takes one step nearer maturity, and he or she takes that step independently."

His first novel, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt, is about a teenage pregnancy. Knowing that teens don't identify with main characters they view as losers, he told the story of alienation and healing from the viewpoint of the young mother's younger sister. The fifteen-year-old manages to keep her troubled family together, "parenting" her parents in a role reversal that appeals to readers of this age group. She is also helpful in the sister's recovery after deciding to give her baby up for adoption. The novel received much critical praise and became a popular success.

Peck's controversial novel about a teenage girl who is raped, Are You in the House Alone?, received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1976. Zena Sutherland, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was impressed by the novel's scope, saying that the author "sees clearly both society's problem and the victim's: the range of attitudes, the awful indignity, the fear and shame that is part of this kind of crime." Peck explained in his speech, "I did not write the novel to tell the young about rape. They already know what that is." He said he wrote it to warn the young that criminals are regrettably sometimes treated with more respect than victims even though victims of crime live in the shadow of that experience for the rest of their lives. Alix Nelson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, thought that Peck should be commended for reaching his audience and for teaching them about a topic that many other people in their lives avoid.

In his "Blossom Culp" books, Peck mixes humor and the supernatural. Set in the years 1913 and 1914, they feature spirited young Blossom Culp, who makes her own rules for life and has psychic powers. In such books as The Ghost Belonged to Me and Ghosts I Have Been, Blossom is revealed as a strong and resourceful young heroine. Through the use of time-travel plot devices, readers are introduced to Ancient Egypt and the women's suffrage movement in Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death. The ghost characters in the "Culp" books are "distinct and memorable," wrote a contributor in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. Past and future are also blended with ease in Peck's science-fiction-influenced novels Lost in Cyberspace and The Great Interactive Dream Machine.

Peck's female heroes are known for making their own decisions and exercising their freedom from the demands of peer pressure. He feels that these qualities are especially important for characters in teenage fiction. Writing in Literature for Today's Young Adults, Peck explained that young people need to see that the confining codes of behavior they live with as adolescents will not be imposed on them for the rest of their lives. He believes they need to see characters rewarded for making the kinds of free choices that young readers will soon have to make on their way to adulthood. He concludes that the future of young adult fiction is in "books that invite the young to think for themselves instead of for each other." "After twelve novels," he said in the speech, "I find I have only one theme. . . . It is simply that you will never grow up until you begin to think and act independently of your peers.

"My message is not, you will notice, to think and act independently of your parents," he continued. "The young do not need that message. In the 1980's they have already won all their battles with their parents and their teachers, with all the adult world, and they have turned upon each other." Children raised in permissive homes tend not to look up to anyone because they see their parents and teachers as their servants, Peck told Sutton. They tend to look down on others while viewing themselves as heroes. Peck said in his speech that teens read books "mainly to find friends—friends they can look up to—better friends than they have or are."

Peck does not ignore social issues related to gender. In his books, he realistically portrays women in a period of social change in a variety of social roles. The self-reliant wives and businesswomen of his books "are contrasted with ineffectual girls and sometimes snobby mothers seemingly locked behind wide, curving drives and imposing front doors," Hilary Crew observed in Top of the News.

Close Enough to Touch, a love story written in response to a young man's request that Peck should write a book about dating, is "told by a boy," the author said in his speech. "It might please some boys to be given this voice. It might surprise some girls that boys have emotions too. Mother never told them. Mothers are still telling daughters that boys only want one thing. How wrong they are. Boys want a great deal." When the boy's first girlfriend dies, he suddenly has to cope with the fact that just as no one had prepared him for intimacy with the opposite sex, no one has prepared him to face grief. "There is no sexual content in this book," Peck continued. "This is a novel about the emotions, not the senses."

Peck believes that American attitudes about public education have resulted in a system that has discouraged young people instead of equipping them for survival in the real world. He said in his speech that, fortunately, another America exists—an America revealed through its literature. "This America is one of self-reliance and coming from behind; of characters who learn to accept the consequences of their actions; of happy endings worked for and almost achieved; of being young in an old world and finding your way in it; of a nation of people hasty and forgetful but full still of hope; of limitless distances and new beginnings and starting over; of dreams like mountaintops, and rivers that run to the sea. We owe our young this record of our dreams."

Such dreams energize A Long Way from Chicago and its companion volume, A Year down Yonder, winner of the 2001 Newbery Medal. In the first book, a novel comprised of seven related short stories, Chicago residents Joey and his younger sister travel each summer from 1929 to 1935 to visit their grandmother in a small Illinois town. Critics found Grandma Dowdel, Peck's central character, a strong and memorable figure who poaches catfish, brews her own beer, and delights in outsmarting her adversaries. The second book, narrated by fifteen-year-old Mary Alice, Grandma's granddaughter, offers a similar mix of "wit, gentleness, and outrageous farce," according to Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman. "Again," wrote Gerry Larson in School Library Journal, "Peck has created a delightful, insightful tale that resounds with a storyteller's wit, humor, and vivid description." In a third historical novel, Fair Weather, the Beckett family makes a whirlwind visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Packed with entertaining period detail and offbeat adventures, the novel earned high praise. "Peck's unforgettable characters, cunning dialogue and fast-paced action," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "will keep readers of all ages in stitches as he captures a colorful chapter in American history." A young man explores his family's complex history in Peck's 2003 novel The River between Us. The work opens in 1916, as Howard Hutchings travels with his family to Grand Tower, Illinois, where Howard's paternal grandparents, great-aunt, and great-uncle await them. The narrative then shifts to 1861, as Tilly Pruitt, Howard's grandmother, recalls the day two enigmatic women arrived by steamboat in Grand Tower, whose residents are divided by the events of the U.S. Civil War. The wealthy and beautiful Delphine Duval and her companion, the younger, darker-skinned Calinda, are taken in by the Pruitt family, though the women's relationship confounds the townspeople. When Noah Pruitt, Tilly's brother, joins the Union army and is wounded in battle, Tilly and Delphine are sent to bring him home; a secret is revealed, and the journey changes their lives forever. In The River between Us, "Peck masterfully describes the female Civil War experience, the subtle and not-too-subtle ways the country was changing, and the split in loyalty that separated towns and even families," noted School Library Journal contributor Connie Tyrell Burns. Hazel Rochman, reviewing the work in Booklist, stated that the author's "spare writing has never been more eloquent than in this powerful mystery in which personal secrets drive the plot and reveal the history." For this effort, Peck received the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. In The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, a 2004 novel, "Peck fully and gracefully describes the family life of an era gone by," observed Kliatt reviewer Janis Flint-Ferguson. Set in 1904, The Teacher's Funeral is narrated by Russell Culver, a rural Indiana teenager whose older sister, Tansy, of his one-room schoolhouse after the death of the local instructor. Despite the chaos brought by her young charges, including a fire in the privy and a snake hidden in her desk, Tansy manages the classroom effectively and offers her students hope for the future. "Following the tradition of Mark Twain, Peck gently pokes fun at social manners and captures local color while providing first-rate entertainment," stated a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. "Best of all," remarked Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan, "the dry wit and unpretentious tone make the story's events comical, its characters memorable, and its conclusion unexpectedly moving." Peck's strong sense of community infuses his works of historical fiction. "I'm reaching the age of nostalgia now," the author told Publishers Weekly interviewer Jennifer M. Brown, "when my beginnings are more vivid to me than all the years between. I realize now what a tremendous advantage it was to grow up where and when I did, with all races, ethnicities, and age groups jumbled together. It was the most nearly democratic place I ever lived."

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech, published in Horn Book, Peck observed: "Powerful forces divorce the young from their roots and traditions....We writers and librarians, we people of the word, spot for survivors in a generation who have learned the wrong lesson from their elementary-school years; that yes, you should be able to read and write; yes, you should be literate. But if you're not, you will be accommodated."

When asked about what he hopes to accomplish with his writing for young adults, Peck told Sutton, "I don't know what books can do, except one point is that I wish every kid knew that fiction can be truer than fact, that it isn't a frivolous pastime unless your reading taste is for the frivolous. I wish they knew that being literate is a way of being successful in any field. I wish they all wanted to pit their own experience against the experiences they see in books." Peck concluded, "But in books you reach an awful lot of promising kids who write back good literate letters and give you hope. So that's the hope I have."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Illustrators for Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1988, Volume 24, 1998.

Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Beacham (Osprey, FL), Volume 1, 1990, Volume 6, 1994, Volume 8, 1994, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Konigsburg, E. L., editor, In My Own Words Series, Silver Burdette, 1991.

Literature for Today's Young Adults, edited by Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1980.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Writers for Young Adults, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.

PERIODICALS

Arkansas Libraries, December, 1981, Richard Peck, "People of the Word," pp. 13-16.

Book, January, 2001, Kathleen Odean, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 83.

Booklist, September 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of A Long Way from Chicago, p. 113; November 15, 1999, Frances Bradburn, review of Amanda/Miranda, p. 615; October 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 436; April 2001, Barbara Wysocki, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 92; September 1, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Fair Weather, p. 110; September 15, 2003, review of The River between Us, p. 239; April 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Past Perfect, Present Tense: New and Collected Stories, p. 1361; October 1, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, p. 326.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1977, Zena Sutherland, review of Are You in the House Alone?, pp. 111-112.

English Journal, February, 1976, pp. 97-99.

Horn Book, January, 2000, review of Amanda/Miranda, p. 82; November, 2000, Kitty Flynn, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 761; July, 2001, Richard Peck, Newbery Medal acceptance speech, p. 397; July, 2001, Marc Talbert, "Richard Peck," p. 403; November-December, 2001, Kitty Flynn, review of Fair Weather, p. 757; September-October, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The River between Us, p. 616; March-April, 2004, Betty Carter, review of Past Perfect, Present Tense, p. 187; September-October, 2004, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Teacher's Funeral, p. 595.

Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1981.

New York Times, January 16, 2001, Eden Ross Lispon, "Prizes Awarded in Children's Literature," p. B9.

New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1971; November 12, 1972; July 27, 1975, p. 8; November 14, 1976, Alix Nelson, "Ah, Not to Be Sixteen Again," p. 29; December 2, 1979; March 11, 2001, Jim Gladstone, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 27; November 18, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Fair Weather, p. 45.

Psychology Today, September, 1975, pp. 11, 75.

Publishers Weekly, March 14, 1980, Jean F. Mercier, interview with Peck; December 19, 1994, p. 55; March 6, 1995, p. 71; September 4, 1995, p. 70; September 2, 1996, p. 131; July 6, 1998, review of A Long Way from Chicago, p. 61; September 25, 2000, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 118; January 22, 2001, Diane Roback, "Penguin Snags Newbery, Caldecott Medals," p. 176; July 23, 2001, review of Fair Weather, p. 77; July 14, 2003, review of The River between Us, p. 77; July 21, 2003, Jennifer M. Brown, "A Long Way from Decatur" (interview), pp. 169-170; November 10, 2003, review of The River between Us, p. 38; January 19, 2004, "Richard Peck Wins O'Dell Prize," p. 26; November 1, 2004, review of The Teacher's Funeral, p. 63.

School Library Journal, May, 1986, pp. 37-39; June, 1990, Roger Sutton, "A Conversation with Richard Peck," pp. 36-40; May, 1992, p. 147; December, 1993, p. 27; October, 1994, p. 49; April, 1995, p. 154; September, 1995, p. 202; September, 1996, p. 206; October, 1998, Shawn Brommer, review of A Long Way from Chicago, p. 144; September, 2000, Gerry Larson, review of A Year down Yonder, p. 236; September, 2001, Kit Vaughan, review of Fair Weather, p. 231; June, 2002, "Richard Peck Wins National Humanities Medal," p. 16; September, 2003, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of The River between Us, p. 218; November, 2003, Carol Fazioli, review of Anonymously Yours, p. 83; April, 2004, Karen Hoth, review of Past Perfect, Present Tense, p. 160; August, 2004, Jane P. Fenn, review of The River between Us, p. 78; November, 2004, Susan Riley, review of The Teacher's Funeral, p. 152.

Top of the News, winter, 1978, pp. 173-177; spring, 1987, Hilary Crew, "Blossom Culp and Her Ilk: The Independent Female in Richard Peck's YA Fiction," pp. 297-301.

Washington Post Book World, November 10, 1974, p. 8; May 1, 1983.

Young Adult Cooperative Book Review, February, 1977.

ONLINE

Richard Peck Home Page, http://richardpeck.smartwriters.com (March 25, 2005).*

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