Peg Kehret (1936-)
Peg Kehret is the author of over two dozen children's novels, most of them, such as award-winners Terror at the Zoo, Nightmare Mountain, and Earthquake Terror, serving up heavy doses of suspense and danger. Kehret has also written nonfiction for adults as well as for children. Her Winning Monologs for Young Actors and Acting Natural both reflect her own commitment to theater; the multi-talented Kehret has also penned a number of plays. The winner of the 1998 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, Kehret's Small Steps documents her own fight with childhood polio that left her temporarily paralyzed. In a Booklist review of Kehret's Earthquake Terror, Stephanie Zvirin neatly summed up the author's career to date: "Prolific author Kehret has a well-deserved reputation for writing good, solid thrillers for middle-graders."
Born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1936, Kehret formed an early passion for words and writing. Paid three cents a story by her grandfather, she wrote, published, and sold her own newspaper about the dogs in her neighborhood. From this experience she gained valuable knowledge about pleasing an audience, but her youthful broadsheet soon went out of business because she continually featured her own dog on the front page.
Kehret's idyllic childhood was shattered when she contracted polio in the seventh grade. As a result, she was paralyzed from the neck down and told that she would never walk again. "Much to everyone's surprise," Kehret once said, "I made almost a complete recovery. I vividly remember the time when I got sick and my months in the hospital and my eventual return to school. Maybe that's why I enjoy writing books for young people; I recall exactly how it felt to be that age. I remember my friends and the books I liked and even what programs I listened to on the radio. When I write, it is easy for me to slip back in my imagination and become twelve years old again."
As a teen, Kehret dreamed of being either a veterinarian or a writer, finally opting for the wordsmith business. "I'm glad I chose writing," Kehret said, "but two of the main characters in my books want to be veterinarians. Dogs, cats, llamas, and elephants have played important parts in my books." With high school came a new direction for Kehret's interest in words—theater. Cast as a hillbilly in a one-act play as a freshman, Kehret was seriously bitten by the theater bug, working backstage or in acting roles in every production she could. Kehret briefly attended the University of Minnesota before marrying in 1955. Children soon followed and she lived the busy life of mother and homemaker, also volunteering for the Humane Society.
Kehret began writing in the early 1970s, spurred on by further work in community theater as well as her interest in research of various sorts. She began selling magazine stories, eventually logging over 300 of them before turning her hand to lengthier works. There followed one-act and full-length plays, including the award-winning Spirit!, as well as two adult nonfiction titles, before she began writing books for young people. Her initial juvenile title, Winning Monologs for Young Actors, appeared in 1986 and was followed by her first novel for young people, Deadly Stranger. The story of a kidnapping, this novel was dubbed a "cliffhanger" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "As soon as I tried writing from a youthful point of view," said Kehret, "I knew I had found my place in the writing world."
Another popular early title from Kehret is Nightmare Mountain, a thriller involving young Molly and her visit to her aunt's ranch at the foot of Mt. Baker. The fun visit turns into a nightmare when her Aunt Karen falls into a coma and three valuable llamas are stolen. Booklist's Denise Wilms observed that Kehret delivers "a fast-paced mystery-adventure tale with a heroine who, when forced to deal with disaster, shows courage and resourcefulness." Jeanette Larson concluded in School Library Journal that the book is a "satisfying novel that will keep readers guessing until the end."
One of Kehret's personal favorites, Cages, allowed her to write about the Humane Society, for which she has a special passion. When young Kit—who has an alcoholic stepfather and a mother in denial—gives in to a momentary urge and shoplifts a bracelet, she sets off a chain of events that has lasting repercussions in her life. Caught, she is sentenced to community service at the Humane Society. There she falls in love with the homeless dogs and learns lessons about personal responsibility and facing her problems. As Andrea Davidson noted in Voice of Youth Advocates, the book "will appeal to young teen readers interested in getting out of the 'cages' represented by their problems." School Library Journal reviewer Sylvia V. Meisner concluded that Kit's determination to set herself free from "the cages of alcohol enablement, jealousy, and, ultimately, the secret of her crime make her an appealing protagonist."
Kehret's best-selling Terror at the Zoo, is the story of an overnight campout at the zoo which goes very wrong. Horror at the Haunted House, continues the adventures of Ellen and Corey from Terror at the Zoo. This time around, they help with a Halloween haunted-house project at the local historical museum, only to discover that the house really is haunted. Overcoming her fear of ghosts, Ellen helps discover who is stealing from the museum's collection. Donna Houser noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that this "fun, fast-paced novel can be read in an evening." Booklist's Chris Sherman concluded that readers "will be waiting in line for this action-packed novel, which combines a good mystery with an exciting ghost story, a little danger, and a satisfying ending that ties everything up neatly."
Ellen and Corey appear again in Danger at the Fair, "this time sharing a thrill-a-minute adventure set at a county fair," according to Zvirin. Atop the Ferris wheel, Corey spies a pickpocket at work, but when Corey subsequently trails the thief, he is trapped inside the "River of Fear" ride. Zvirin concluded that the mystery-suspense components of the story, plus "a pair of enthusiastic, heroic, quite likable" protagonists, all added up to a book "that won't stay on the shelf for long."
Two other personal favorites of Kehret are The Richest Kids in Town and Searching for Candlestick Park. The former title is a departure for Kehret, a comic novel about Peter's money-making ventures gone wrong. New in town, Peter desperately wants to save up enough money for a plane ticket to go back and visit his best friend. Peter enlists the help of some other kids, including Wishbone Wyoming, in some of his crazy moneymaking schemes. Their plans range from an alternative health club to a rubber-duck race, and all fail miserably and rather humorously. Finally Peter comes to see that he no longer needs to make money for a ticket; he has a new best friend in Wishbone. A critic for Kirkus Reviews concluded that there are "clever antics in this fun book," while Horn Book dubbed it a "read-aloud comedy."
In Searching for Candlestick Park, twelve-year-old Spencer is trying to find the father who left him and his mom three years before. Sure that his dad works for the San Francisco Giants, Spencer sets off on his bicycle from Seattle, accompanied by his cat, Foxey. Lauren Peterson noted in Booklist that Spencer's "honesty and integrity are repeatedly tested" in this "fast-paced, exciting adventure." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that "Spencer's impulsive escapade may give readers infatuated with the notion of running way some second thoughts."
With Earthquake Terror, Kehret returned to her more usual thriller format. When an earthquake destroys the only bridge to the mainland from the tiny island where Jonathan and his disabled sister Abby are staying, the young boy is pitted against nature. With no food or supplies, and unable to contact help, Jonathan must single-handedly save Abby, his dog, and himself. With displaced waters from the quake beginning to flood the island, the clock is ticking on Jonathan's efforts. "It will be a rare thriller fan who won't want to see what happens," Zvirin commented in her Booklist review. Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that Kehret's "focus on the action is tight and involving," while Elaine E. Knight concluded in School Library Journal that "Jonathan is a sympathetic and realistic character," and that this "exciting tale is a fine choice for most collections." Using youthful protagonists Warren and Betsy, Kehret has also employed time travel to set up thrilling stories, as in The Volcano Disaster, in which Warren must survive the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Kehret has also authored several titles in the "Frightmares" series, a competitor to the popular "Goosebumps" books. Her books feature friends Rosie and Kayo, who get involved in all manner of adventures and mysteries, from solving a kidnapping in Arizona in Desert Danger to solving a possible poisoning in Don't Go Near Mrs. Tallie to discovering vandals in the school with the help of a pet in Bone Breath and the Vandals. Booklist's Peterson, reviewing Bone Breath and the Vandals, noted that "Kehret delivers some likable characters and a thrilling plot that won't disappoint suspense fans."
Nonfiction for children has also received the Kehret touch. Of her several books of monologues for young actors, one of the most popular is Acting Natural: Monologs, Dialogs, and Playlets for Teens. "A wide range of topics is addressed in this sourcebook of sixty original scenes and monologues," noted Dianne G. Mahony in School Library Journal. Donna Houser commented in Voice of Youth Advocates that "all sections have their own merit because they deal with problems that are relevant to today's youth."
Kehret details her own battle with the paralyzing after-effects of polio in her award-winning Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio. "This heartfelt memoir takes readers back to 1949 when the author, at age twelve, contracted polio," noted Zvirin in Booklist. Kehret describes the progress of the illness, the paralysis, and her slow recovery. Christine A. Moesch concluded in School Library Journal that Kehret's memoir is an "honest and well-done book." In a 2002 interview with Mary Berry for Teacher Librarian, Kehret mentioned her recent "increased difficulties with post-polio syndrome," which have caused her to lighten her traveling schedule. Her children are now married and have made grandparents of the Kehrets. When they do travel for speaking engagements, Kehret and her husband take their dog and cat along in their motor home.
Yet another nonfiction title is Kehret's Shelter Dogs, stories of dogs that found a second life after being taken from Humane Society shelters. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "an amiable collection of short anecdotes," concluding that there was "a ready audience to cry over and gasp at the tale behind every dog." Kehret donates ten percent of her royalties to animal welfare groups.
My Brother Made Me Do It, is the story of eleven-year-old Julie Walsh and her eighty-nine-year-old pen pal, Mrs. Kaplan, which unfolds through Julie's letters. As part of a school project, Julie begins a correspondence with Mrs. Kaplan, who lives in Kansas. The preteen shares stories with her pen pal about everything from her younger brother's pranks to her run for student council. When Julie is diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, Mrs. Kaplan is the first friend she tells. It turn out that Mrs. Kaplan, too, suffers from arthritis, and through the pen pals continued exchanges, the reader follows their triumphs and struggles with challenges at two different stages of life. A reviewer for School Library Journal noted that "the incidents are treated with humor and sensitivity." Susan Allen, writing for Voice of Youth Advocates, called My Brother Made Me Do It, "an unexpected gem" that tackles "many topics, such as the challenges of chronic illness and the payoff for perseverance."
Kehret's coauthor for The Stranger Next Door and Spy Cat is Pete the Cat, whose contributions to the stories appear in italics. Pete, the pet of twelve-year-old Alex Kendrill, makes his first appearance in Stranger. Alex has moved to a new neighborhood where his life is threatened by an arsonist and where the unfriendly boy with whom he tries to establish a friendship is in a witness-protection program. "Readers will be caught up in the action even as they are amused by Pete's astute observations and adroit detective work," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In Spy Cat, Alex's younger brother, Benjie, is kidnapped by thieves when he learns too much about them for his own good. Pete, whose mewings are not understood by humans, nonetheless leads them to his rescue and the solution of the crimes.
In a second memoir, Five Pages A Day: A Writer's Journey, Kehret recalls her beginnings as a writer, including her prize of a trip to Hawaii and a new car for her twenty-five-word entry on why she liked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner. "Like her novels, this memoir is written in spare, lively prose with plenty of interesting details, anecdotes, and insights," said a Kirkus Reviews critic.
Kehret has amassed a large body of work and a legion of loyal fans—both girls and boys—for her middle-grade thrillers. Blending exciting action, likable characters, and hi-lo language, Kehret writes books that lead her readers on to more difficult fiction and nonfiction. Berry asked which awards mean the most to Kehret. She replied that "they are all special. The children's choice awards, where students have voted for their favorite book, are always great because they tell me that the audience I write for has appreciated my work."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Kehret, Peg, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1996.
Kehret, Peg, Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2002.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975-1991, Gale, 1992.
Booklist, September 15, 1989, p. 184; February 15, 1990, p. 1166; May 15, 1992, p. 1672; September 1, 1992, pp. 56, 60; September 1, 1994, p. 41; December 1, 1994, p. 664; May 1, 1995, p. 1573; October 1, 1995, p. 314; January 1, 1996, p. 834; November 1, 1996, pp. 492-93; August, 1997, p. 1901; August, 1998, p. 2005.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1995, pp. 202-203; March, 1996, p. 231; November, 1996, pp. 100-101; November, 1997, pp. 88-89.
Horn Book, spring, 1995, p. 78.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1987, p. 373; August 15, 1994, p. 1131; June 1, 1997, p. 874; April 1, 1999, p. 535; March 15, 2002, review of The Stranger Next Door, p. 415; September 15, 2002, review of Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey, p. 1393; February 1, 2003, review of Spy Cat, p. 233.
Kliatt, July, 1993, p. 10; March, 1997, p. 40.
School Library Journal, October, 1989, p. 120; March, 1990, pp. 218-219; June, 1991, p. 126; August, 1992, p. 182; September, 1994, p. 218; May, 1995, p. 108; December, 1995, p. 104; February, 1996, p. 100; November, 1996, p. 114; July, 1998, p. 96.
Teacher Librarian, April, 2002, Mary Berry, "A True Survivor: An Interview with Peg Kehret," p. 50.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1991, pp. 97-98; June, 1992, pp. 126-127; October, 1992, p. 224; February, 1996, p. 373; December, 2000, Susan Allen, review of My Brother Made Me Do It.
Peg Kehret Home Page, http://www.pegkehret.com/ (March 18, 2004).
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalPeg Kehret (1936-) - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress, Autobiography Feature