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Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies

Peck, Richard
April 5, 1934 -
Author


2004Ludington Award Winner

Ludington Award Citation


SOURCE CITATION
"Richard (Wayne) Peck." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by Penguin Books for Young Readers.

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
Richard Peck's books on such important teen-age problems as suicide, unwanted pregnancy, death of a loved one, and rape have won critical praise for their realism and emotional power. Peck has written over a dozen very popular books for young adults, books that help young readers to develop self-confidence. He has also written adult novels that show men and women who are not confined to roles that traditionally belong to their gender. When writing for young adults, Peck told Roger Sutton in a School Library Journal interview, he thinks about potential readers: "As I'm typing I'm trying to look out over the typewriter and see faces. I don't certainly want to 'write for myself' because I'm trying to write across a generation gap." In books for both age groups, Peck told Jean F. Mercier in Publishers Weekly, he tries to "give readers leading characters they can look up to and reasons to believe that problems can be solved." The excellence of his work has been recognized by numerous awards, including the American Library Association's Young Adult Author Achievement Award in 1990 and the Newbery Medal in 2001 for A Year Down Yonder.

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." He observed that young adults are most concerned with winning approval from their peers and seeking reassurance from their reading material. 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."

His first novel, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt, is about a teenage pregnancy. Knowing that teens don't identify with main characters they view as losers, he told 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 deciding to give her baby up for adoption. The novel received much critical praise and became a popular success, and continues to sell in both paperback and hardcover editions.

Peck's controversial novel about a teenage girl who is raped, Are You in the House Alone?, 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 criminals are regrettably 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 in their lives avoid.

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 explained 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.

"My message is not, you will notice, to think and act independently of your parents, " he continued. "The young do not need that message. In the 1980's they have already won all their battles with their parents and their teachers, with all the adult world, and they have turned upon each other." Children raised in permissive homes tend not to look up to anyone because they see their parents and teachers as their servants, Peck told Sutton. They tend to look down on others while viewing themselves as heroes. Peck said in his speech that teens read books "mainly to find friends--friends they can look up to--better friends than they have or are."

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. The self-reliant wives and businesswomen of his books "are contrasted with ineffectual girls and sometimes snobby mothers seemingly locked behind wide, curving drives and imposing front doors," Hilary Crew observes in Top of the News.

Close Enough to Touch, a love story written in response to a young man's request that Peck should write a book about dating, is "told by a boy, " the author said in his speech. "It might please some boys to be given this voice. It might surprise some girls that boys have emotions too. Mother never told them. Mothers are still telling daughters that boys only want one thing. How wrong they are. Boys want a great deal." When the boy's first love dies, he suddenly has to cope with the fact that just as no one had prepared him for intimacy with the opposite sex, no one has prepared him to face grief. "There is no sexual content in this book," Peck continued. "This is a novel about the emotions, not the senses."

Peck believes that American attitudes about public education have resulted in a system that has discouraged young people instead of equipping them for survival in the real world. He said in his speech that, fortunately, "There is another America, of course, beyond this somber landscape. An America revealed chiefly in books--by novels: of the past, on this year's list, of novels yet to be written. This America is one of self-reliance and coming from behind; of characters who learn to accept the consequences of their actions; of happy endings worked for and almost achieved; of being young in an old world and finding your way in it; of a nation of people hasty and forgetful but full still of hope; of limitless distances and new beginnings and starting over; of dreams like mountaintops, and rivers that run to the sea. We owe our young this record of our dreams."

Such dreams energize A Long Way from Chicago and its companion volume, A Year down Yonder, winner of the 2001 Newbery Medal. In the first book, a novel comprised of seven related short stories, Chicago residents Joey and his younger sister travel each summer from 1929 to 1935 to visit their grandmother in a small Illinois town. Critics found Grandma Dowdel, Peck's central character, a strong and memorable figure who poaches catfish, brews her own beer, and delights in outsmarting her adversaries. The second book, narrated by fifteen-year-old Mary Alice, Grandma's granddaughter, offers a similar mix of "wit, gentleness, and outrageous farce," according to Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman. "Again," wrote Gerry Larson in School Library Journal, "Peck has created a delightful, insightful tale that resounds with a storyteller's wit, humor, and vivid description." In a third historical novel, Fair Weather, the Beckett family makes a whirlwind visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Packed with entertaining period detail and offbeat adventures, the novel earned high praise. "Peck's unforgettable characters, cunning dialogue and fast-paced action," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "will keep readers of all ages in stitches as he captures a colorful chapter in American history."

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech, published in Horn Book, Peck observed: "Powerful forces divorce the young from their roots and traditions. . . . We writers and librarians, we people of the word, spot for survivors in a generation who have learned the wrong lesson from their elementary-school years; that yes, you should be able to read and write; yes, you should be literate. But if you're not, you will be accommodated."

When asked about what he hopes to accomplish with his writing for young adults, Peck told Sutton, "I don't know what books can do, except one point is that I wish every kid knew that fiction can be truer than fact, that it isn't a frivolous pastime unless your reading taste is for the frivolous. I wish they knew that being literate is a way of being successful in any field. I wish they all wanted to pit their own experience against the experiences they see in books. And I wish they had to do a little more of that in order to pass the class in school. But in books you reach an awful lot of promising kids who write back good literate letters and give you hope. So that's the hope I have."

UPDATES
October 15, 2003: Peck is nominated for a 2003 National Book Award for young people's literature from the National Book Foundation for The River Between Us (Dial/Penguin). Source: National Book Foundation web site, http://www.nationalbook.org, October 15, 2003.
February 20, 2004: Peck won the 2004 Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award for The River Between Us. Source: http://www.scotodell.com/sosoaward.html
March 14, 2005: Peck was awarded a 2005 Christopher Award for Books for Young People for The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts (Dial Books/Penguin). Source: Christopher Awards, www.christophers.org, March 14, 2005.

PERSONAL INFORMATION
Born April 5, 1934, in Decatur, IL; son of Wayne Morris (a merchant) and Virginia (a dietician; maiden name, Gray) Peck. Education: Attended University of Exeter, 1955-56; DePauw University, B.A., 1956; Southern Illinois University, M.A., 1959; further graduate study at Washington University, 1960-61. Politics: Republican. Religion: Methodist. Memberships: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Delta Chi. Addresses: Home--155 East 72nd St., New York, NY 10021. Office--c/o Delacorte Press, 1 Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, New York, NY 10017. Agent--Sheldon Fogelman, 155 East 72nd St., New York, NY 10021.

CAREER
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, instructor in English, 1958-60; Glenbrook North High School, Northbrook, IL, teacher of English, 1961-63; Scott, Foresman Co., Chicago, IL, textbook editor, 1963-65; Hunter College of the City University of New York and Hunter College High School, New York, NY, instructor in English and education, 1965-71; writer, 1971--. Assistant director of the Council for Basic Education, Washington, DC, 1969-70; English-speaking Union fellow, Jesus College, Oxford University, England, 1973; lecturer. Military service: U.S. Army, 1956-58; served in Stuttgart, Germany.


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