"Teaching made a writer out of me, because it was in teaching that I found the readers," says Richard Peck. With his deep, commanding voice and lean, tall stature, he seems to belong at the head of a classroom. He looks comfortable and composed on this sweltering summer day on New York's Upper East Side, dressed in a loose-fitting marigold linen shirt with a subtle black print, and a pair of Bermuda shorts. The tangerine walls of his living room create a soothing mood, and a deer head on the east wall serves as a tangible reminder of his Midwestern roots.
"I taught at Hunter College High School, right down the street," he says, gesturing southward. "That's what got me to New York in 1965." Peck intended to teach there for one year and stayed for six. Yet it was in that first year of teaching that he met the man who would publish his first book, George Nicholson, then an editor at Dell Paperbacks. They were introduced by the head of Hunter's English department, who also served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English and was working with many of the paperback houses to "reprint intellectually respectable work for a reading curriculum," the author recalls. So in 1971, when Peck left teaching to write a novel, he knew where he would take the completed manuscript.
Nowadays, as a Newbery Medalist for A Year Down Yonder (Dial, 2000), the author spends nearly as much time traveling to speaking engagements as he does at his desk. But in the summer of 1971 he had nowhere to go and no income. He finished his first novel that fall and delivered it to Nicholson, who was by that time juvenile editor-in-chief of Holt, Rinehart & Winston. "That was the darkest day of my life," Peck recalls. "That night I had no manuscript and nothing to work on. So I walked the tip of Manhattan and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and finally fell on the bed fully clothed. The phone rang the next morning at 8:30 and George said, 'You can start your second novel.' " The publication of Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (Holt, 1972) began a publishing partnership that would last for more than two decades (until Nicholson became an agent in 1994).
When the author is not traveling, he works at an L-shaped desk, which affords a view north through a large sunny window. He writes everything on an electric typewriter because "it has to be a book from the first day," he explains. He has no daily routine because of all the traveling he does, but follows a very disciplined writing process. He writes each page six times, then places it in a three-ring binder with a DePauw University cover ("a talisman," he calls this memento from his alma mater). When he feels that he has gotten a page just right, he takes out another 20 words. "After a year, I've come to the end. Then I'll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I'll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise." He always hands in a completed manuscript, and his editor is his first reader.
The walls of his office exhibit his accolades: the National Humanities Medal he received at the White House last year (Peck is the only children's book author to have received one), as well as a photograph that depicts him between President Bush and Laura Bush at the ceremony, a citation as a National Book Award finalist for A Long Way from Chicago (Dial, 1999) and the Margaret A. Edwards Award (given by the ALA as a lifetime achievement award to a YA author).
With his more than 32 books, Peck now communicates with a far wider audience than the students in his classroom. His most recent novels even reach across the generations. "I was much encouraged by the response I was getting to A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder," he says of the novels set in 1930s Illinois. "People say, 'I not only gave that book to my child, I gave it to my Dad.' That pleased me, because if I could do anything, it would be to erase the boundaries between age groups in readers."
But one gets the sense that Peck is not referring just to reading when he mentions erasing these boundaries. In all of his novels, relationships between the young protagonists and a wiser elder feature prominently, but perhaps nowhere more so than in his four most recent novels, which are all set in the past. Peck explains that he has turned to historical fiction "because we're living history now, and the young aren't."
In The River Between Us, coming out in September from Dial, 15-year-old Howard Hutchings sets out from St. Louis in 1916 with his father to visit his Grandma Tilly, a lifelong resident of the town of Grand Tower, on the edge of the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. Grandma Tilly tells Howard of the pivotal events of her life when she was precisely his age, at the start of the Civil War, which have surprising implications for him, too.
The author introduces the complexities of the war—social class, racial issues and a country split between those who wished to divide the states and those who wished to unite them—all onto the small stage of a town of 300 people. When a glamorous woman, Delphine, presumably traveling with her slave, arrives by ship from New Orleans and is stranded in Grand Tower, Tilly's mother takes in the pair when others won't. Tilly discovers the visitors' past when she travels with Delphine to search for Tilly's enlisted brother. Like Howard, Tilly must leave her home in order to see the bigger picture.
Born in Decatur, Ill., in 1934, Peck was not much older than Howard when, as a junior at DePauw University in 1955, he left his home state to spend a year in England at the University of Exeter. His fellow students there were "a generation who had grown up under the tables and in the bomb shelters of WWII. They seemed immensely tempered. And I felt so big and wholesome and untried," says Peck, his voice taking on the tenuousness of a teenager. When his classmates asked him who he considered "the quintessential American novelist," they prompted a search that would eventually lead to Peck writing his master's thesis on Sinclair Lewis ("He was going to have to be Midwestern," Peck jokes). Yet when he returned to Illinois at the end of the school year, "My friends were still talking about the same things they were talking about when I left."
Shortly after graduation in 1956, Peck was drafted into military service in Germany, an experience that he said was every bit as educational as being a student in England: "I think your view of the world goes on—for the rest of your life—as the world you saw as you emerged into it as an adult."
By contrast, the teens Peck meets in classrooms today, he says, seem bound by their peer groups, and little else. In a workshop he taught earlier this summer, a teacher confided to him that whenever a student tells her, "My mother wouldn't like that," she backs down because, she said, "I know in any confrontation with a parent, the school will side with the parent." Peck is concerned that "there are no limits [for teens] now, except the limits that the peer group imposes. They've defeated the parents and they know the teacher can't touch them. And who's left? The peer group. It's a government. And it was not attacked on September 11. So we feel attacked and greatly changed, and they don't."
A Sense of Place
Having grown up in Illinois, Peck has infused his books with a strong sense of the Midwest. Even Peck's early novels have that nonsuburban sense of wide expanses, woods and lakes, family close by and an almost bygone sense of community. But those books were not set in the past—they were set in the present. "When I started in this field, I thought the YA novel was a contemporary novel," Peck recalls. One he cites as especially influential is The Pigman by Paul Zindel.
Peck read 30 YA titles during his last semester of teaching, among them I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip; Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?; A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich; and Go Ask Alice. And he'd already read The Outsiders. All of them deal with issues that were on the cutting edge in the late '60s and early '70s. And so did Peck's novels: his first, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt, dealt with teenage pregnancy; Are You in the House Alone? (Viking, 1976) explored the rape of a sexually active teenager by a rich, popular boy at school; and later Remembering the Good Times (Delacorte, 1985), which the author considers his best novel, centers on a suicide.
His "first period piece," as he refers to it, arrived in the form of Blossom Culp in The Ghost Belonged to Me (Viking, 1975). "I was in flight from the young adult novel as a contemporary problem novel," Peck recalls. "I was afraid I was going to burn out on writing on the same terms that I had burned out on teaching—going from problem to problem trying to put out fires."
In Ghost, a glamorous girl from New Orleans comes North on a steamboat in 1913 ("Here she is again," Peck says with a laugh). The steamboat blows up and her corpse washes ashore, and haunts the boy who finds her. The author introduced Blossom Culp to bring together the separate worlds of the boy, his great-uncle and the ghost. She became too strong for a minor character, so he made her the star of the next three (Ghosts I Have Been; The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp; and Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death).
But with the conclusion of that quartet of books, Peck also dispensed with the need for a time-travel element. Perhaps Blossom Culp handed off the torch to Grandma Dowdel, because with A Year Down Yonder, Peck began to plunge readers directly into the past. "I'm reaching the age of nostalgia now," the 69-year-old author says, "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."
Peck's early associations of home form the basis of the questions he raises about what it means to be part of a community, what it's like to leave it and question it, and find one's place within it. Whether it's Carol Patterson finding an unlikely opportunity to leave her town of Claypitts in the 1970s in his first novel, or Howard Hutchings on an unwitting journey to discover his roots in Grand Tower in 1916 in his most recent book, the foundation of family and community remain the same.
In a shrinking world, the larger question is whether today's teens see themselves as part of that foundation. "Every time I go to the airport now, I know that something happened and changed everything," Peck says. "But [in the schools] nothing has happened. Nothing. No sudden, 'Okay, that didn't work. Now we've got to have foreign languages and geography and history,' " his voice rises in frustration. "And I think, what do I do about that?"
Yet as he transports readers to the Illinois of Al Capone's reign in A Long Way from Chicago or to the 1893 World's Fair in Fair Weather (Dial, 2001) or to the Civil War's crossroads on the banks of the Mississippi in The River Between Us, he does make his case for the importance of knowing history and geography.
The seeds of his passion for teaching may well have been planted on Peck's first day of junior high. The author describes being terrified of the idea of lockers and different people for different classes, and he thought he was alone in his fears. His father drove him to class that morning: "As we drew up to the school, he said, 'When you walk through that door today, you will have had more school than I have ever had. I will count on you to tell me all that I need to know.' "
Now Peck finds himself writing his father's story: a novel about a seventh grader in a one-room schoolhouse who wants to go to the Dakotas to work as part of a harvesting crew. "In my novel I'm not going to let him go," says Peck.
Perhaps a teacher and a writer was born that first day of seventh grade in Decatur, Ill. What he learned, he passed on to his father, later to his students, and finally to his readers.