Richard Peck is thrilled that BEA is in Chicago this year. Not only is it a homecoming for the Decatur, Ill., native—“if you can go home again,” he says—but he credits the Illinois legislature with producing the spark that became The Best Man (Dial, Sept.). Peck’s latest middle-grade novel is the story of six-grader Archer, whose uncle, Paul, marries Archer’s favorite student teacher after same-sex marriage legislation is passed in Illinois in 2013.
“I did not see this coming,” says Peck, a Newbery Medalist (for A Year Down Yonder) and resident of New York City, of the legislation that was signed into law by Illinois governor Pat Quinn. “And now, suddenly, it’s the law of the land, too,” since the Supreme Court ruled last summer that same-sex marriage is the constitutional right of all Americans.
Peck, who is openly gay, is adamant that marriage equality is a “great step forward for this country,” but at the same time, he is concerned that the notion that marriage between same-sex couples is just as conventional as marriage between a man and a woman is not percolating quickly enough through a society in which there are boys who call each other “fags” and scrawl homophobic comments on bathroom walls. “Who is talking about this new way of life?” Peck asks, noting that, now that same-sex marriage is legal, textbooks addressing the issue are hopelessly out-of-date until new ones can be written and ordered into the nation’s schools.
While a major theme in Best Man is that same-sex marriage is completely natural, Peck doesn’t stop there: he also wants to debunk some other social stereotypes in telling Archer’s story. For instance, Peck says, he wants to debunk masculine stereotypes for young readers, some of whom don’t have fathers or any other positive male role models in their lives. Thus, Peck says, Archer’s father is not a careerist but rather a nurturing presence, who is “there for Archer all the time,” just as Peck’s own father was when he was a child.
“This book is idealized, I know,” Peck says of Best Man. Pointing out that “all fiction is political,” just as “all politics is local politics,” Peck insists that when it comes down to it, Best Man is just another story about family life, as all of his novels have been, and “really, as all stories are.”
Peck will sign ARCs of Best Man today, 3–4 p.m., at the Penguin Young Readers booth (2433); after that, he will participate in the Uptown Stage program, “Middle Grade Marvels,” 4:15–4:45 p.m., with fellow Newbery medalist Jennifer L. Holm.
This article appeared in the May 13, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.