At last Friday’s author breakfast for the 37th annual New England Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference, former English teacher Richard Peck wowed even the most morning-phobic booksellers with his presentation on his new novel, Three-Quarters Dead (Dial). Opening with a recitation from Lewis Carroll’s "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Peck went on to discuss the American invention of adolescence and today’s golden age for children’s literature. Below is an edited version of his talk.
We find ourselves now in a golden age for children’s literature, for stories on the Great American Theme. Never in the history of any country or language has so much talent, graphic and linear, shared its gifts with the young. Never have books for the young been the economic force they are today, snatching whole publishing houses back from the brink. Never have books offered more options to the literate young, options their peer group leaders never told them they had.
It’s a golden age for books, but a dark time to be young, and growing darker as the message texted from the back of the classroom replaces more and more of the curriculum and Facebook glows hot into the night, long after parents are fast asleep. And so never has a young generation needed our stories as much as this one because nobody ever grows up until he has to and in our stories somebody always has to.
But how much easier to admire writers than to be one, how much easier to generalize about a whole generation of young readers than to reach just one of them upon the shared page. It took a revolution to make a writer out of me. In fact my writing career has fallen between two great revolutions, the revolution of the l970s that cost us our system of learning and literacy, and the present, electronic, digital revolution that is bombing the ruins.
I’m a writer because I was once a teacher, an English teacher of course. What else is there? Because nothing is real until it’s written down. And if you cannot find yourself on the page very early in life, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong pages.
I quit teaching -- on June 24, 197l, after seventh period -- to go home and write or die. But then the only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you.
I looked up from my manual typewriter one day and it was 1973, the pivotal year of our national history. In 1973, two years before the end of the Vietnam War, President Nixon abolished the military draft, removing the last adult constraint upon the young. And the revolution was over. Adolescence changed direction that night, becoming less a preparation for adult life and more a consolidation of gains already achieved.
And in 1973, the masterwork in my field was published, in fact the most important American novel of the second half of the 20th century: Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, a riveting portrayal of the peer-group leader the young set up over themselves when adult authority at home and school fails them.
Robert Cormier captured the pivotal moment in all American history, that moment in the midst of the ’70s when the balance shifted, and power passed from adults to children, that moment after which teachers had to defer to their students in order to keep their jobs.
But none of that happened to a new generation who cannot remember 9/11 and were, increasingly, born after it, a generation who are learning no history in school and will learn none in college: non-elective, sequential history and how it repeats, how the Pearl Harbor of one generation becomes the 9/11 of another.
And now we’re in the thick of a new revolution and the literature it creates, a revolution as sudden as the ’70s, and as destructive to all the necessary metaphors of fiction, as the message texted from the back of the class silences the only adult voice in the room, and the message texted from behind the wheel of the speeding car provides adolescents with new, electronic ways to live, to die, and to divorce their parents.
And that’s what my new novel, Three-Quarters Dead, is about. It came from the newspaper: five 18-year-old girls in a suburb somewhere, friends forever, are killed instantly during the cell-phone conversation of the driver: a girl with a cell phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.
Mine is a very contemporary tale, but on a theme that long predates the illiteracies of Twitter, the bullying of BlackBerry, the stalking of Skype, and the message texted from behind the wheel of the speeding car. It’s a story based on a truth that anybody who ever taught school knows: that nobody ever grows up in a group; people grow up, if at all, one at a time in spite of the group.
It’s a novel with a theme that owes much to Robert Cormier and The Chocolate War, the best novel ever written about the adolescent need for a peer-group leader more punitive than you’d permit a parent to be.
A novel is always a question, never an answer. The first question we writers hope our readers will ask is: “What if I were the character in this story? What would I do?”
And a novel for the young is now, after the revolutions, a question parents and teachers are no longer empowered to ask. And we writers will go right on asking our questions even as the screens glow hot into the night, long after parents are fast asleep.