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Richard Peck is a contemporary American novelist best known for his young adult fiction, including A Year Down Yonder (2000), which was awarded the 2001 Newbery Medal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Illinois during the Great Depression
Richard Peck was born on April 5, 1934, in Decatur, Illinois, to Wayne Morris, a merchant, and Virginia (Gray) Peck, a dietitian. The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, was in full swing, and many families across the United States struggled to make ends meet. Although he was still young by the time the war economy of World War II began to relieve the widespread economic hardship, Peck was inspired enough by the climate of the 1930s to use the Great Depression as the backdrop for one of his most successful novels, A Year Down Yonder.
Education in English
Peck attended DePauw University in Indiana and spent his junior year, from 1955 until 1956, at the University of Exeter in England. He graduated from DePauw in 1956. Before going back to school, he served in the U.S. Army in Stuttgart, Germany, for two years. The United States had maintained a military presence in the city ever since the Allied forces took control of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II. After returning to the United States, he pursued graduate education at Southern Illinois University, earning his MA in 1959, and then enrolled at the University of Washington from 1960 to 1961. While at Southern Illinois University, Peck taught English. After graduating, he taught high school English at Glenbrook North High School in Illinois before taking a job in Chicago as a textbook editor.
After two years, Peck left Chicago and moved to New York where he taught for six years at Hunter College High School. He left his position in 1971 to work first as the assistant director of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C., and then as a fellow at Oxford University in England. It was during these years that Peck submitted his first books for publication.
Peck became familiar with contemporary adolescent problems while teaching high school.
He liked his students but, after several years, became discouraged and quit. He once said that teaching ”had begun to turn into something that looked weirdly like psychiatric social work.” Peck decided instead to write books for teenagers that featured the problems he had seen. ”Ironically, it was my students who taught me to be a writer, though I had been hired to teach them,” he said in a speech published in Arkansas Libraries. ”They taught me that a novel must entertain first before it can be anything else.
First Novel Confronts Teen Pregnancy
Peck’s first novel, Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt (1972) is about a teenage pregnancy. In it, he tells the story of alienation and healing from the viewpoint of the young mother s younger sister. The fifteen-year-old manages to keep her troubled family together, ”parenting” her parents in a role reversal that appeals to readers of this age group. She is also helpful in the sister s recovery after she decides to give her baby up for adoption. The novel received much critical praise and became a popular success, and it continues to sell in both paperback and hardcover editions.
Success and Recognition
Since his first novel, Peck has published numerous novels for young adults, several poetry anthologies, a short story collection, and several nonfiction books for adults. Of these, his novels for young adults have been most successful, and several have won prestigious awards. For example, his novel Dreamland Lake (1973), was nominated for the 1994 Edgar Allan Poe Award. Two years later, Peck s controversial novel about a teenage girl who is raped, Are You in the House Alone? (1976), received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile fiction in 1976. In 1999, A Long Way from Chicago (1999) was recognized with the Newbery Honor. Perhaps most significantly, A Year Down Yonder (2000) won the 2001 Newbery Medal. Peck has also won numerous awards for his lifetime accomplishments, including the National Humanities Medal in 2001.
In contrast to many of his peers, Peck refuses to write on a computer, preferring instead to compose his written works on a typewriter. For similar reasons, he does not maintain a personal Web site. Peck s most recent books include several novels for young adults, The Teacher’s Funeral (2004), Here Lies the Librarian (2006), On the Wings of Heroes (2007); a short story anthology, Past Perfect, Present Tense (2004); and a nonfiction book, Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini (2007).
Works in Literary Context
While teaching high school, Peck observed that young adults are most concerned with winning approval from their peers and seeking reassurance from their reading material. Peck believes that American attitudes about public education have resulted in a system that discourages young people instead of equipping them for survival in the real world. With these needs in mind, Peck writes about the passage from childhood to adulthood. He believes that in a young adult novel, typically ”the reader meets a worthy young character who takes one step nearer maturity, and he or she takes that step independently.” Peck’s writing is heavily influenced by his experience as a high school English teacher.
Realism: Teen Issues
Peck’s books that deal with important teenage problems such as suicide, unwanted pregnancy, death of a loved one, and rape have won critical praise for their realism and emotional power. He has written over a dozen very popular books for young adults, books that help young readers to develop self-confidence. Peck does not ignore social issues related to gender. In his books, he realistically portrays women in a period of social change in a variety of social roles.
Overcoming Peer Pressure
Peck’s female heroes are known for making their own decisions and exercising their freedom from the demands of peer pressure. He feels that these qualities are especially important for characters in teenage fiction. Writing in Literature for Today’s Young Adults, Peck explains that young people need to see that the confining codes of behavior they live with as adolescents will not be imposed on them for the rest of their lives. He believes they need to see characters rewarded for making the kinds of free choices that young readers will soon have to make on their way to adulthood. He concludes that the future of young adult fiction is in ”books that invite the young to think for themselves instead of for each other.” ”After twelve novels,” he said in the speech, ”I find I have only one theme. … It is simply that you will never grow up until you begin to think and act independently of your peers.”
Works in Critical Context
Peck’s first novel, Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt was well received and brought him praise from critics and young readers alike. Over the course of his writing career, Peck has developed a reputation for his ability to engage young readers and confront difficult aspects of being a teenager with sensitivity.
Are You in the House Alone?
Peck’s controversial novel about a teenage girl who is raped received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1976. Zena Sutherland, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, was impressed by the novel’s scope, saying that the author ”sees clearly both society’s problem and the victim’s: the range of attitudes, the awful indignity,” the fear and shame that is part of this kind of crime. Peck explained in his speech, ”I did not write the novel to tell the young about rape. They already know what that is.” He said he wrote it to warn the young that, regrettably, criminals are sometimes treated with more respect than victims, even though victims of crime live in the shadow of that experience for the rest of their lives. Alix Nelson in the New York Times Book Review thought that Peck should be commended for reaching his audience and for teaching them about a topic that many other people prefer to avoid.
A Year Down Yonder
This novel, a sequel to the earlier A Long Way from Chicago (1998), is about a fifteen-year-old girl who goes to live with her grandmother in a small town in Illinois during the Great Depression. It was awarded the Newbery Medal in 2001 and received appreciative reviews. In Booklist, Hazel Rochman commented on the book’s ”combination of wit, gentleness, and outrageous farce.” The reviewer admired the well-developed characterization, as well as the dialogue and storytelling. She concluded that ”The heart of the book is Grandma—huge and overbearing, totally outside polite society. Just as powerful is what’s hidden: Mary Alice discovers kindness and grace as well as snakes in the attic. Most moving is Mary Alice’s own growth.” Kitty Flynn in The Horn Book Magazine was of the opinion that ”while the escapades are diverting,” the novel does not possess the ”cumulative power” of the first novel. ”Grandma, who was an indefatigable source of surprise and bewilderment to her grandchildren in the first book, doesn’t come across as such a mythic figure this time around.” This mild criticism aside. Flynn praised the humor in the novel and concluded that ”Peck presents memorable characters in a satisfying sequel.”
- Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen, eds. ”Richard Peck.” Literature for Today’s Young Adults. (New York: Longman, 2001).
- Betts, Wendy E. Review of The Last Safe Place on Earth. Five Owls (March/April 1995): 88.
- Crew, Hilary. ”Blossom Culp and Her Ilk: The Independent Female in Richard Peck’s YA Fiction.” Top of the News (Spring 1987): 297-301.
- Flynn, Kitty. Review of A Year Down Yonder. The Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 6 (November 2000): 761.
- McHenry, Dorinda. Review of Lost in Cyberspace. Children’s Book Review Service (January 1996): 60.
- Mercier, Jean F. ”Interview with Richard Peck.” Publishers Weekly, March 14, 1980.
- Nelson, Alix. ”Ah, Not to Be Sixteen Again.” New York Times Book Review (November 14, 1976): 29.
- Peck, Richard. ”People of the Word.” Arkansas Libraries (December 1981): 13-16.
- Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Lost in Cyberspace. Booklist (October 15, 1995): 402.
- Rochman, Hazel. Review of A Year Down Yonder. Booklist 97, no. 4 (October 15, 2000): 436.
- Sutherland, Zena. Review of Are You in the House Alone? Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (March 1977): 111-112.
- Sutton, Roger. ”A Conversation with Richard Peck.” School Library Journal (June 1990): 36-40.
- Voss, Lana. Review of Bel-Air Bambi and the Mall Rats. Voice of Youth Advocates (December 1993): 298.
- Youree, Beverly. Review of Love and Death at the Mall. Voice of Youth Advocates (April 1994): 58.
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