Robert Newton Peck (1928-) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1928, in Vermont; Education: Rollins College, A.B., 1953; Cornell University, graduate coursework in law. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Playing ragtime piano, sports.
Writer and farmer. Worked variously as a lumberjack, in a paper mill, as a hog butcher, and as a New York City advertising executive. Director of Rollins College Writers Conference, 1978-82; owner of publishing company, Peck Press; teacher and speaker at conferences. Military service: U.S. Army Infantry, 1945-47; served with 88th Division in Italy, Germany, and France during World War II; received commendation.
Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association, and Spring Book Festival Award older honor, Book World, both 1973, Media & Methods Maxi Award (paperback), 1975, and Colorado Children's Book Award, 1977, all for A Day No Pigs Would Die; New York Times Outstanding Book designation, 1973, for Millie's Boy; children's book of the year designation, Child Study Association of America, 1973, for Millie's Boy, 1975, for Bee Tree and Other Stuff, 1976, for Hamilton, and 1987, for Soup on Ice; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, 1980 and 1981, for A Day No Pigs Would Die, 1980, 1981, and 1982, for Hang for Treason, and 1980 and 1982, for Clunie; Mark Twain Award, Missouri Association of School Librarians, 1981, for Soup for President; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for Social Studies/Children's Book Council, 1982, for Justice Lion, and 1986, for Spanish Hoof; Michigan Young Reader's Award, Michigan Council of Teachers, 1984, for Soup; Bologna International Children's Book Fair includee, 1985, for Spanish Hoof.
FICTION; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
A Day No Pigs Would Die, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
Millie's Boy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
Soup, illustrated by Charles Gehm, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
Bee Tree and Other Stuff (poems), illustrated by Laura Lydecker, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1975.
Fawn, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1975.
Wild Cat, illustrated by Hal Frenck, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1975.
Soup and Me, illustrated by Charles Lilly, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Hamilton, illustrated by Laura Lydecker, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1976.
Hang for Treason, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
King of Kazoo (musical), illustrated by William Bryan Park, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
Rabbits and Redcoats, illustrated by Laura Lydecker, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1976.
Trig, illustrated by Pamela Johnson, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Last Sunday, illustrated by Ben Stahl, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1977.
The King's Iron, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Patooie, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Soup for President, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
Eagle Fur, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
Trig Sees Red, illustrated by Pamela Johnson, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.
Mr. Little, illustrated by Ben Stahl, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
Basket Case, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
Hub, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Clunie, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Trig Goes Ape, illustrated by Pamela Johnson, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980.
Soup's Drum, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
Soup on Wheels, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Justice Lion, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
Kirk's Law, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1981.
Trig or Treat, illustrated by Pamela Johnson, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1982.
Banjo, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
The Seminole Seed, Pineapple Press, 1983.
Soup in the Saddle, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Soup's Goat, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Dukes, Pineapple Press, 1984.
Jo Silver, Pineapple Press, 1985.
Spanish Hoof, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Soup on Ice, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Soup on Fire, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987.
Soup's Uncle, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988.
Hallapoosa, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1988.
The Horse Hunters, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Arly, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1989.
Soup's Hoop, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1990.
Higbee's Halloween, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1991.
Little Soup's Hayride, Dell (New York, NY), 1991.
Little Soup's Birthday, Dell (New York, NY), 1991.
Arly's Run, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1991.
Soup in Love, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.
FortDog July, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1992.
Little Soup's Turkey, Dell (New York, NY), 1992.
Little Soup's Bunny, Dell (New York, NY), 1993.
A Part of the Sky, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Soup Ahoy, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
Soup 1776, illustrated by Charles Robinson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
Nine Man Tree, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Cowboy Ghost, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Extra Innings, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Horse Thief, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Bro, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
FICTION; FOR ADULTS
The Happy Sadist, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962.
Path of Hunters: Animal Struggle in a Meadow, illustrated by Betty Fraser, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
Secrets of Successful Fiction, Writer's Digest Books, 1980.
Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters, Writer's Digest Books, 1983.
My Vermont, Peck Press, 1985.
My Vermont II, Peck Press, 1988.
Weeds in Bloom: The Autobiography of an Ordinary Man, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of songs, television commercials, and jingles. Adapter of novels Soup and Me, Soup for President, and Mr. Little for television's Afterschool Specials, American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC-TV).
Soup was adapted for television and broadcast by ABC-TV, 1978. A Day No Pigs Would Die was adapted for cassette and released by Listening Library; several of Peck's other novels have been adapted as audiobooks.
Beginning with his first title in 1972, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Robert Newton Peck has carved out a territory in YA fiction for himself. Dissecting the past, Peck takes readers back to a rural America which honors the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, self-sufficiency, and the importance of education. Often set in Vermont, Peck's stories reflect the influence of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, especially so in Peck's humorous set of books based on the character Soup. But Peck's works also engage serious themes, portraying adolescents in their struggles on the cusp of adulthood in such titles as A Day No Pigs Would Die and its 1994 sequel, A Part of the Sky, and the novels Millie's Boy, Justice Lion, Spanish Hoof, Arly, and Arly's Run. Teachers often appear in Peck's fiction where they serve as supporting and life-affirming role models, and he details their importance to his development as both an adult and a writer in his autobiography Weeds in Bloom: The Autobiography of an Ordinary Man. Born in 1928, the seventh child of rural Vermont farmers, Peck was the first member of his family to attend school. There he fell under the influence of an inspiring teacher, Miss Kelly, who he has often memorialized in his fiction in one guise or another. He also formed a childhood friendship with a young boy named Luther, nicknamed Soup, who has also become a fixture in Peck fiction. Peck's father slaughtered hogs during the difficult Depression years, and memories of this also feature in Peck's writing. Academically inclined, Peck went on to attend college, earning an A.B. from Rollins College in 1953 and then studying law at Cornell University. Married in 1958, he and his wife had two children while Peck pursued a successful career as an advertising executive in New York City. By his mid-forties, however, Peck was ready to try something different, and his love of books drew him to writing.
Peck's first novel, A Day No Pigs Would Die, is a semi-autobiographical account of his memories of growing up on his family's Vermont farm. Written in only three weeks, the tale portrays a young boy's coming-of-age when faced with the task of killing his pet pig, thereby becoming a man in the eyes of his Shaker family. Dubbed "charming and simple" by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times Book Review, the novel became an instant favorite, especially with reluctant readers, and also won numerous awards. Lehmann-Haupt went on to note that the novel is "a stunning little dramatization of the brutality of life on a Vermont farm, of the necessary cruelty of nature, and of one family's attempt to transcend the hardness of life by accepting it." This theme of the objective cruelty of nature and man's need to fit into its pattern has been replayed in much of Peck's subsequent fiction and nonfiction alike. Jonathan Yardley, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, remarked that A Day No Pigs Would Die "is sentiment without sentimentality … an honest, unpretentious book." Since its publication, the novel has found a place on most best-of-YA lists and has also been included in the curriculum of some college young-adult literature courses.
Peck reprised the protagonist of A Day No Pigs Would Die over two decades later in A Part of the Sky. With his father now dead, young Rob Peck is forced to work at a store in order to keep up with payments on the family farm. Most critics felt, however, that the sequel is not as strong as the initial title, which depicted the strong bond between boy and father and presented a compelling evocation of Shaker ideals.
Peck has revisited the coming-of-age theme in several other novels. In Millie's Boy, which takes place in Vermont at the turn of the twentieth century, he tells the story of another boy on the edge of adulthood. Left an orphan after his prostitute mother is killed, sixteen-year-old Tit Smith is chased by wild dogs when he runs away from the county work farm, and is ultimately taken in by a kindly doctor. A reviewer for Booklist noted that the novel contains "well-done characterizations, dialog and … background," and is "laced with adventure and humor."
In Arly and it's sequel, Arly's Run, Peck portrays teachers as positive and supportive. Miss Binnie Hoe serves up education as a way to freedom for the children of workers in the factory town of Jailtown, Florida. Young Arly is forced into labor too, as his father falls ill and bills need to be paid. Miss Hoe arranges for Arly's escape from the virtual prison of Jailtown. Jennifer Brown, writing in Children's Book Review Service, declared that this "is a powerful book which any caring adult should read," while Katharine Bruner concluded in School Library Journal that "Arly's adventures at school, his encounters with evil, his moments of grief and despair, remain vivid long after the last page has been turned." In the sequel, Arly's Run, the young boy discovers that freedom is something that must be won everywhere, and he ultimately finds a new home for himself. Kathy Elmore noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that his "historical adventure grabs the reader from the first chapter" and would serve as an "eye-opening" introduction to "the plight of migrant workers."
Both Clunie and Spanish Hoof mark a change of pace for Peck in that they feature female protagonists. His novel Extra Innings also features a strong female central character, this time an older woman named Vidalia, who inspires a young man with her stories of touring with an all-black, all-woman baseball team during the lean Depression years. Clunie, based on Peck's research at an institution, focuses on a young girl named Clunie Finn who is mentally disabled; she is relentlessly teased and called "simple" by her fellow students at school. The novel was praised as a "moving story, though not altogether free of sentimentality," according to a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Reviewing Clunie in the New York Times Book Review, Patricia Lee Gauch commented that "Peck has never been more the consummate storyteller than in this book about … a retarded farm girl caught in a web of adolescent cruelty."
In Spanish Hoof, Peck tells "an utterly predictable yet endearingly sweet-'n'-earthy tale of cattle-ranching in Depression-era Florida," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Narrated by eleven-year-old tomboy Harriet "Harry" Beecher, the novel follows one family's attempt to stay above water financially, an effort that is aided by Harry's sacrifice: selling her horse to help save the ranch. Booklist contributor Karen Stang Hanley concluded that Peck's "rewarding story about a girl's departure from childhood and a loving extended family is … a natural for independent reading."
Spanish Hoof also introduced a new setting for Peck's novels when it was published in 1985. Whereas most of his early books are set in Vermont, after relocating to Florida in the 1980s, he began using that location more and more in his fiction. In Hallapoosa and The Horse Hunters, as well as in Arly, Nine Man Tree, Cowboy Ghost, and Bro, Peck spins his coming-of-age tales about young boys against a Florida backdrop. In Hallapoosa he presents an orphan brother and sister who are sent to live with a relative, a justice of the peace in the small southern Florida town of Hallapoosa, during the Depression years of the 1930s. Peck weaves a tale involving "murder, a kidnapping, and … return from the dead," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who concluded that the author's "language is a pungent, evocative pleasure." In Bro, which also takes place in the 1930s, Tug Dockery, an orphaned boy is haunted by a horrific incident he witnessed at his grandfather's ranch six years before. Now orphaned by a train wreck that killed his parents and forced to live with his moody grandfather, Tug awaits the release from jail of an older brother who Tug hopes will rescue him from his ghosts; however, fate has other plans in store in a "compelling tale" that School Library Journal contributor Gerry Larson praised for its "wit, insight, compassion, and hope." The Horse Hunters once again evokes Depression-era Florida in its tale of a young boy who moves into manhood while on a wild mustang roundup. Reviewing The Horse Hunters for Voice of Youth Advocates, Allan A. Cuseo felt that this "coming-of-age epic" is "more lethargic" than Peck's other works, but that the author's "usual themes of endurance, freedom of choice, and humankind's basic goodness are affirmed."
In addition to mining the social history and customs of his own lifetime, Peck sometimes reaches into the more distant past when setting his novels. Taking readers back to the colonial and Revolutionary War periods, he has crafted the coming-of-age stories Eagle Fur, Fawn, Hang for Treason, The King's Iron, and Rabbits and Redcoats. Throughout these tales, Peck shares his love of history as well as his belief in the importance of the father-son bond. Additionally, he continues to employ a graphic style of writing well suited to descriptions of often violent circumstances.
During the mid-1990s Peck left writing and undertook a personal battle with cancer. Winning the fight, the author returned with more fiction in 1998. Nine Man Tree is set in 1931 in the backwoods of Florida where "an illiterate dirt-poor family suffers under the rule of an abusive father," according to a Publishers Weekly commentator. Eleven-year-old Yoolee Tharp protects his little sister Havilah, as well as his mother, from his father's drunken rages, but soon an even bigger enemy looms: a giant wild boar that is attacking and eating humans. Few tears are shed when Yoolee's father is killed on an expedition to kill the animal, but the boy suffers a loss at the death of Henry Old Panther, an elderly Calusa native who is ultimately killed by the beast, a long-time enemy that the Indian refuses to kill. Helen Rosenberg, writing in Booklist, remarked that in Nine Man Tree Peck "tells a haunting story in which the wild boar and the abusive father meet similar fates, but it is also an adventure and a … tale that will have reluctant readers glued to their chairs."
In Cowboy Ghost, Peck tells another growing-up story against the backdrop of a Florida cattle drive in the early years of the twentieth century. Young Titus battles Seminole Indians and bad weather in the 500-mile drive, rising from cook's helper to leader of the drive. William C. Schadt noted in School Library Journal that readers will be "entertained by the way Peck portrays the cowboy lifestyle, including his liberal use of folksy, country jargon," and concluded that Cowboy Ghost spins "a good story."
Ranch life is also the backdrop of Horse Thief, which finds seventeen-year-old rodeo rider Tullis Yoder desperate to save the lives of thirteen rodeo horses after the Big Bubb Stampede Rodeo show that owns them goes bankrupt and plans are made to send the horses to slaughter. Joining with several unlikely partners—including a horse-thieving gambler and his daughter, a doctor—Tullis steals the horses, and soon finds that the crime stirs up more trouble than he could possibly imagine in a novel that School Library Journal reviewer Carol Schene called "witty, unpredictable, and a … story that refuses to take itself too seriously." Noting that the author's love of horses is apparent throughout the novel, Kliatt contributor Paula Rohrlick added that Horse Thief is a "fun, folksy read" that reflects Peck's "understanding of boys' longing to prove themselves." "Western fans are in for a treat," added Booklist reviewer Debbie Carton, dubbing the novel a "convoluted and surprisingly funny odyssey, chock-full of engaging characters."
While many of his books have involved hardships of one sort or another, Peck has penned several other books that, like Horse Thief, contain more-lighthearted fare. He turns to less-serious themes with his "Soup" series of books about young Rob and his friend, Soup. Soup is a boy who can talk Rob into almost any mischief, from smoking cornsilk to rolling downhill in a barrel. Episodic and filled with humor, the first novel in the series, Soup, chronicles life among poor, rural Vermonters during the 1930s. Critics compared the book to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and a reviewer for Booklist called the first "Soup" title "a series of entertaining, autobiographical recollections." Peck has continued the "Soup" series in over ten installments, which have been praised for helping to bring reluctant readers into the literacy fold. Though Zena Sutherland reflected the feelings of some reviewers by noting in a review of Soup for President for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Peck's "corn-fed nostalgia" comes off as "just a bit too jolly," other critics have been more enthusiastic. Mary M. Burns wrote in Horn Book that the adventures of Soup and Rob succeed "primarily as a humorous reminiscence of small-town attitudes and customs in the pre- World War II era." Other titles in the series include Soup on Ice, "a story that portends the real Christmas spirit in subtle style," according to Peggy Forehand in School Library Journal, and Soup 1776, which School Library Journal contributor Connie Pierce called "a blast."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 45, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997, pp. 93-126.
Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Sally Holmes Holtze, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1983, pp. 240-241.
Peck, Robert Newton, Fiction Is Folks, Writer's Digest Books, 1983.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 683-685.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 235-247.
Booklist, April 1, 1974, review of Soup, p. 878; December 1, 1975, review of Millie's Boy, pp. 382-383; April 15, 1985, Karen Stang Hanley, review of Spanish Hoof, p.1198; June 1, 1994, p. 1799; January 15, 1995, p. 946; February 15, 1996, p. 1036; August, 1997, p. 1920; August, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of Nine Man Tree, p. 2008; February 1, 2001, Kelly Milner Halls, review of Extra Innings, p. 1046; May 15, 2002, Debbie Carton, review of Horse Thief, p. 1605; March 15, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of Bro, p. 1299.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1978, Zena Sutherland, review of Soup for President, p. 165.
Children's Book Review Service, June, 1989, Jennifer Brown, review of Arly, p. 126.
Horn Book, May-June, 1978, Mary M. Burns, review of Soup for President, pp. 279-280; November-December, 1995, p. 776.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1980, review of Clunie, p. 125; March 1, 1985, review of Spanish Hoof, p. J13; April 15, 1988, review of Hallapoosa, p. 567; September 1, 1998, p. 1291; May 15, 2004, review of Bro, p. 496.
Kliatt, July, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of Horse Thief, and Stacey Conrad, review of Extra Innings, p. 26; July, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of Bro, p. 11.
New York Times, January 4, 1973.
New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1973, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of A Day No Pigs Would Die, p. 35; May 13, 1973, Jonathan Yardley, review of A Day No Pigs Would Die, p. 37; February 24, 1983, Patricia Lee Gauch, review of Clunie, p. 33; November 13, 1994, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, July 21, 1997, p. 203; August 17, 1998, review of Nine Man Tree, p. 73; January 11, 1999, review of Cowboy Ghost, p. 73; January 15, 2001, review of Extra Innings, p. 77; June 10, 2002, review of Horse Thief, p. 61.
School Library Journal, October, 1985, Peggy Forehand, review of Soup on Ice, p. 192; June, 1989, Katharine Bruner, review of Arly, p. 108; March, 1994, p. 183; August, 1994, p. 70; October, 1995, Connie Pierce, review of Soup 1776, p. 139; November, 1998, p. 126; March, 1999, William C. Schadt, review of Cowboy Ghost, p. 213; March, 2001, Todd Morning, review of Extra Innings, p. 255; July, 2002, Carol Schene, review of Horse Thief, p. 124; August, 2004, Gerry Larson, review of Bro, p. 128.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1989, Allan A. Cuseo, review of The Horse Hunters, p. 105; April, 1992, Kathy Elmore, review of Arly's Run, p. 34.
Robert Newton Peck Web site, http://www.athenet.net/~blahnik/rnpeck/ (December 2, 2004).*
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