Richard Peck Essay - Critical Essays

Peck, Richard

Introduction

Richard Peck 1934–

American novelist for young adults and adults.

While he has written thrillers, ghost stories, and romances, Peck is best known for his works portraying young people caught up in personal problems. His subjects include teenage pregnancy, rape, divorce, suicide, and other topics which have been avoided until recently in young adult novels. To keep his topics relevant, Peck travels widely, meeting young people to hear their opinions and concerns first hand. This respect for his audience has helped to make him one of the most popular contemporary young adult writers.

Peck's first novel, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt, illustrates his commitment to realism. Its title is the advice the protagonist gives to her older sister, who is unmarried, pregnant, and afraid of giving her child up for adoption. The book was generally felt to be poignant and compassionate, although it was criticized for its lack of depth, a comment which has been applied to several of Peck's later titles. Are You in the House Alone? is perhaps his most controversial work, depicting the trauma of a young girl who is pursued and eventually raped by a disturbed classmate. Several critics applauded Peck's restraint in the handling of this subject and his indictment of the American social stigma and legal treatment of rape and rape victims.

Critics have usually found Peck to be an honest and perceptive writer whose books project an uncommon authenticity. He writes from the perspective that growing up today is more difficult than ever before and that literature directed to young people should reflect and explore this fact honestly. His popularity among young adults suggests that his own books successfully meet this criterion. Peck was awarded the National Council for the Advancement of Education Award in 1971, and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1976 for Are You in the House Alone? (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, and Something About the Author, Vol. 18.)

Kirkus Reviews

Don't look and it won't hurt—Carol's advice to Ellen who's wondering how she can bear to give her baby up for adoption—is neither true nor very comforting [in Don't Look and It Won't Hurt], but [the] teenage characters bend themselves to cheerfully hard-boiled sarcasm—particularly tough Mitsy Decker … and the precociously poised minister's daughter Shirley Gage. It won't hurt if you read it for the humor, but don't look for any hidden profundity.

"Older Fiction: 'Don't Look and It Won't Hurt'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 16, August 15, 1972, p. 949.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

There are no absolutes [in "Don't Look and It Won't Hurt"]: abject poverty is tempered by humor; a ne'er-do-well father is allowed an unlikely streak of compassion; and the pregnant sister gives her baby up for adoption only after the subtleties of her predicament are seen and felt.

Rather than arousing judgemental passions, "Don't Look and It Won't Hurt" leaves the reader empathic and terribly moved. (pp. 8, 10)

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, "Dreams for Children, Nightmares for Teen-agers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1972, pp. 8, 10, 14.∗

Peggy Sullivan

[The advice in the title of Don't Look and It Won't Hurt] typifies the bitter wisdom of this family of losers…. [The story] is well written but concludes with few solutions and only sketchy plot development. Nevertheless, as a slice of none-too-enjoyable life, Peck's first novel will interest many readers.

Peggy Sullivan, "Junior High-Up: 'Don't Look and It Won't Hurt'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the December 15, 1972 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1972), Vol. 97, No. 22, December 15, 1972, p. 68.

Kirkus Reviews

Not once, but three different times, Brian Bishop finds himself staring into the "Awful Face of Death" [in Dreamland Lake]. Brian's stunned reactions to the suddenness of death and the ultimate incomprehensibility of a corpse are in stark counterpoint to his other memories of his thirteenth summer. He and his friend Flip subsist largely on sly adolescent wit…. After the two boys find the body of an old tramp in the woods Flip, who lives up to his name and has a cruel streak besides, encourages Brian in another illusion: perhaps the pathetic fat boy Elvan, who has been trying to interest them in his collection of Nazi souvenirs, knows something more about the tramp's death? Their efforts to build their discovery into a full-scale mystery eventually leads to a real tragedy—a startlingly convincing freak accident which sets the seal to Brian's chronicle of innocence remembered and lost. Less convincing, however, is the implication that Flip is actually responsible for what happens to Elvan. This assignment of guilt by hindsight adds an unsettling dimension to an otherwise finely tuned shocker. Though the fraternal naivete of boarding school life in another generation has been replaced with a kind of wry public school prescience, this ambiguous mixture of nostalgia and guilt is invariably reminiscent of [John Knowles's] A Separate Peace. The message is somewhat less than meets the eye, but for boys at a certain stage of growing up, Dreamland Lake projects a firm reality.

"Young Adult Fiction: 'Dreamland Lake'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1973 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 12, June 15, 1973, p. 648.

Alice H. Yucht

Beautifully told, [Dreamland Lake] has just enough foreshadowing to heighten the sense of impending doom. Everything rings true—the dialogue, the minor characters as well as Flip and Brian, small scenes of English class and of the boys' newspaper route, and, most of all, Brian's painful coming of age. Even slower readers will grab this book, captivated first by the mystery, and then by its deeper levels of meaning.

Alice H. Yucht, "Grades 3-6: 'Dreamland Lake'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the November 15, 1973 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright...

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Kirkus Reviews

In [Through a Brief Darkness] Peck wisely relinquishes any pretense to relevance or depth and comes out with a tightly drawn romantic melodrama about sixteen-year-old Karen, protected daughter of a big time crook, who is suddenly pulled out of boarding school and hustled off to "relatives" in England, there to discover gradually that she has actually been kidnapped by ruthless members of a rival syndicate. The unconvincing presence of a handsome young Etonian … who comes to Karen's rescue makes it impossible to take the adventure seriously, but Karen's gradual admission of the illegality of her father's activities gives it what little ballast is needed, and—most important—the shocks and terrors of Karen's...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[Dreamland Lake is a] subtle and provocative novel…. There is some humor in the rather caustic depiction of classroom scenes, but the story is serious; it is not grim, however, despite the fact that it begins and ends with death, because the skilful construction, the sound characterization and dialogue, and the realistic fluctuation and conflict in the relationships outweigh the fact that the boys are reacting to death. (pp. 83-4)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Dreamland Lake'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1974 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 27,...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

The New York Times Book Review

Ending with a sudden and shattering tragedy, ["Dreamland Lake"] is more somber perhaps than the usual teenage mystery. Yet the author has a light, controlled touch, and an emotional depth to his narrative that turns it into an unusually strong and subtle novel of early adolescence.

"For Ages 4, 5 … 15: 'Dreamland Lake'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1974, p. 10.

(The entire section is 68 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Peck's writing [in Representing Super Doll] is admirable. It has vitality and flow, vivid characterization and dialogue, a fresh viewpoint that makes the story convincingly that of an intelligent adolescent, and a deeper treatment of a theme than most beauty contest books achieve.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Representing Super Doll'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1974 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 28, No. 3, November, 1974, p. 51.

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Jean Alexander

[Older characters in Representing Super Doll,] for the most part, are stereotype adults: the teasing father, the devoted mother, the English teacher who wears straight skirts and gives assignments on "Your hopes, your dreams."

Verna is a midwestern farm girl attending a small-town high school after her earlier years in a country school…. She becomes friends with three town girls, one of whom is the beautiful but stupid Darlene Hoffmeister.

Mrs. Hoffmeister, a divorcee living on alimony, enters her daughter in several beauty contests, one of which is Miss Teen Super Doll. When Darlene wins the regional contest she gets to travel to New York City and compete in the national...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

"There are several opinions that people hold regarding ghosts, and not one of them would clinch an argument." So Richard Peck, betraying a twinge of embarrassment, sort of backs in to the ghost story genre [with The Ghost Belonged to Me]. But once under way he has a great time, calling up a classic spook, little Inez Dumaine…. This haunting is slapstick most of the way, and anyone who worries about the tender feelings of Inez … might find it all impossibly silly. But Peck throws in enough scary moments to prove that he'd be a winner in any campfire storytelling session, and in that spirit he will keep his audience giggling and just a little frightened at the same time.

...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

Joan Goldman Levine

At the turn of the century, in a barn loft in Bluff City, Middle America, the ghost of the drowned Inez Dumaine—a benign and pitiable apparition—appears to young Alex Armsworth [in The Ghost Belonged to Me] and makes a cryptic request: "To be among my own people … above the ground, but at rest." She tells Alex to find other "true believers" to assist him. And he does.

The journey is humorous and Peck is reminiscent of [Mark] Twain; but for the most part, the droll intimations of a Twain are in Alex's perceptive glimpses of family and friends. For example, Alex on his mother's social aspirations: "We have given up being Baptists in favor of being Episcopalians, which is one step up...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Bruce Clements

All ghost stories turn on the question of whether the ghost is real or not…. If she's real, the writer has to be very good to keep the story from becoming melodramatic claptrap.

[In The Ghost Belonged to Me] Peck is very good. His ghost is believable and affecting, and so is his hero. Alexander is direct, he knows what he wants, he's not too embarrassed by his faults, he's observant, he's honest. And he has an elegant style, at once down-to-earth and courtly.

Alexander's most impressive quality is his sense of justice, the care he takes to report honestly what he saw and felt and to give everyone, with the unfortunate exception of his family, a fair hearing. He talks...

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Margery Fisher

It is hardly surprising to find kidnapping a favourite theme for writers who want to keep up with the times. In Through a brief darkness Richard Peck has allied this fashionable subject with an equally fashionable boy-girl situation. In the course of a lonely life Karen Beatty has come to realise that the work that surrounds her with luxury but keeps her father away is distinctly shady and dangerous. By the time she is sixteen she has achieved a certain wry philosophy though, surprisingly, not enough common sense to look twice at the way she is persuaded to take a flight from New York to London at short notice. In effect, she is kidnapped…. In fact, Karen is remarkably slow to realise anything, and this gives...

(The entire section is 188 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

[In Are You in the House Alone?,] Gail Osborn's ordeal begins with an obscene note pinned to her school locker, builds until she is raped and beaten by her best friend's disturbed steady, and is intensified throughout by her isolation…. The rough stuff is discreetly elided from both the notes and the attack itself. But Peck's view of affluent Connecticut, and of Gail's snobbish, self-centered parents in particular, is harsh enough. Distortingly harsh, and insofar as Peck presents this as an accurate profile of rape and its aftermath, readers might conclude that it's futile for any victim to seek protection or justice. As we expect this to be read as a chiller rather than a case study, we'll rate it medium...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Junior Bookshelf

Kidnapping, like hi-jacking, is very much the thing…. [In Through a Brief Darkness] Mr. Peck at least manages a flourish of novelty in having Rachel kidnapped in a very elaborate way en route, as it were, between New York and London…. The yarn certainly moves rapidly—in terms of locale as well; Mr. Peck seems to make use of places he once knew. It is a pity that a slight taint of cynicism seems to colour the whole. It is such a good novel that one feels like reading it all over again once one has reached the end.

"'Through a Brief Darkness'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 40, No. 5, October, 1976, p. 283.

(The entire section is 111 words.)

Alix Nelson

[In "Are You in the House Alone?"] the author's purpose is to show how rape victims are further victimized by society and the law. As a feminist, as the mother of two daughters, and as one who was sexually assaulted at the age of 11, I think all children should be warned and wary; however, I'm not sure it serves a function to do so in melodramatic terms….

Mr. Peck has chosen just such a format, building up a sense of mystery and terror preceding the attack by the use of menacing, obscene phone calls and anonymous threatening notes, and by having the rapist be a psychopath who stalks the girl as she baby-sits alone at night. Although he knocks her unconscious prior to the actual rape—so the event...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Janet Leonberger

[Are You in the House Alone? is] a sensitive, tasteful and realistic novel for young adults on rape. Gail Osborne is a true-to-life teenager…. In the end, no one ends up with the same old friends; loyalties—if they ever really existed—change and Gail emerges knowing herself and the real world a lot more thoroughly. The reader emerges with helpless yet outraged questions about what can be done to handle rape…. Highly recommended for purchase by all young adult collections and for inclusion in the Best Books for YA's List. (pp. 89-90)

Janet Leonberger, "Reviews: 'Are You in the House Alone?'" in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts,...

(The entire section is 117 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Peck brings [Are You in the House Alone?] to a logical, tragic conclusion … but it isn't what happens that gives the story impact, although that is handled with conviction, and although the style, dialogue, and characters are equally impressive—it is the honest and perceptive way that the author treats the problem of rape. For Peck sees clearly both the society's problem and the victim's: the range of attitudes, the awful indignity, the ramifications of fear and shame. (p. 112)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Are You in the House Alone?'" in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Pamela D. Pollack

Peck treats rape as a serious issue [in Are You in the House Alone?], effectively dramatizing it in the style of a Hitchcock thriller, with the heroine hounded by obscene notes and heavy-breather phone calls. The book is a page-turner at the same time that it is a rallying cry against antiquarian, antiwomen rape laws; but, most importantly, Peck creates a character with the grit and determination not to be permanently scarred by her scarifying experience. (p. 199)

Pamela D. Pollack, "Sex in Children's Fiction: Freedom to Frighten?" in SIECUS Report (copyright © 1977 by The Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. V,...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

The Junior Bookshelf

[The] characters and setting [of The Ghost Belonged to Me] establish themselves very firmly, and the sense of period … is finely conveyed. There is a ring of authenticity in the local gossip, with all its gruesome detail…. Blossom Culp [is] a splendid creation…. [At] first she seems merely brazen, but the depth of her feelings emerges as quietly she involves herself in Alexander's and Miles' efforts to lay the bones of the ghost … with her ancestors in New Orleans…. The rescue [of Alexander's sister from a stupid affair] is exciting, as is the dig for the skeleton, and the book is full of really funny scenes, like Lucille's disastrous coming-out garden party. The beautifully-handled variety of...

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Kirkus Reviews

So closely does [Ghosts I Have Been] follow The Ghost Belonged to Me … that at times Peck's sequel on Second Sight verges on déja vu. Once again there's a child-ghost in trouble and once again an eccentric oldster steps in to take Alexander and Blossom on exotic travels. But no matter. This is still a blithe and spirited occult comedy with fewer genuine spooky moments but plenty of out-and-out belly laughs. Plucky Blossom Culp, Bluff City social outcast, in 1914, starts out as a mystic manqué tricking gullible classmates, but then suddenly she starts having honest-to-goodness visions: first of a car accident, then strange flashforwards (even one of the moon landing), and finally a trip back...

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Joyce Milton

It isn't easy to pull off a sequel to a burlesque, but Richard Peck manages it [in "Ghosts I Have Been"] with humor that's as flyaway as ectoplasm, and the enormously entertaining strategy of spinning ghost stories and spoofing them at the same time.

Joyce Milton, "Children's Books: 'Ghosts I Have Been'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1977, p. 34.

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Blossom Culp … tells her own story [in Ghosts I Have Been], and she's completely convincing…. She gets involved in strange dramatic situations, becomes famous when her prescience is proven accurate, and takes it all in her stride. Some-how, in this melange of eccentric characters and dramatic, fantastic events, Peck instills in Blossom and her story a sturdy, lively believability.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Ghosts I Have Been'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1978 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 31, No. 7, March, 1978, p. 117.

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Publishers Weekly

Count Peck's new novel ["Father Figure"] as the best of many that have won him honors, and assuredly one of the best for all ages in many a moon…. Callowness and vanity make Jim mess up somewhat but he learns some poignant truths. Peck makes everyone so human and interesting that readers believe in and care about one and all.

"Fiction: 'Father Figure'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 17, 1978, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 214, No. 3, July 17, 1978, p. 168.

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Winifred Rosen

James Atwater, a sensitive 17-year-old stranded on the shoals of adolescence, narrates the latest addition to Richard Peck's notable list of titles for young adults. As he tells it, Father Figure is more a situation than a story, since its pivotal dramatic events take place outside the narrator's range of vision. But it is a situation dramatic enough in itself to seize and hold our attention. And, in the end, we admire the restraint with which it is described.

Although told in the vernacular of today, the novel's stark setting and strangled emotional atmosphere give the tale a Victorian quality…. James, already an overanxious father figure,… finds himself more responsible than ever for his...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Jane B. Jackson

The narrative [of Ghosts I Have Been] gets a bit heavy-handed when Blossom foresees World War I and moralizes on the futility of war, but in general the story is an engrossing adventure and Blossom an engaging narrator. A blurb on the jacket accurately compares Peck's style to Mark Twain's; as in some of Twain's books, the wit and insight of the narrator will be missed by most of the audience the book is intended for. But the story alone should make it popular with YA readers. (p. 12)

Jane B. Jackson, "Fiction: 'Ghosts I Have Been'," in Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide (copyright © by Kliatt Paperback Book Guide), Vol. XIII, No. 6, Fall, 1979, pp. 10,...

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Jennifer Brown

Would you believe a group of runaway children living in the department store of your local shopping mall? No, neither would I, but I'm willing to wager that … students will be lining up to read [Secrets of the Shopping Mall]. One of the elements that makes this basically fantastic story fun to read is the characterizations of Teresa and Barnie…. There is both humor and pathos in their personalities, as they use their streetwise ways to deal with the suburban runaways living in the department store and the "Mouth Breathers" who threaten them from the outside. I may not believe it, but I certainly enjoyed it!

Jennifer Brown, "'Secrets of the Shopping Mall'," in...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

One problem with this broad, ham-handed satire [Secrets of the Shopping Mall] is that Peck has no sharp sight on his targets: a mall with Gucci labels and a K mart is hard to place; an outmoded junior miss department buyer promoting the Dale Evans western look is too far out even to be a credible figure of fun; and Peck's stereotyped, commodity-oriented runaways are more recognizable as prevailing clichés than as the plastic people he intends to mock. Worse, Teresa and Barnie have no personalities either and their thoughts and conversations no vitality.

"Older Fiction: 'Secrets of the Shopping Mall'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1979 The Kirkus Service,...

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Jack Forman

[In "Secrets of the Shopping Mall"] Mr. Peck endows his two heroes with too many "smarts" to be entirely believable, but it doesn't really matter. He pokes fun, exposes hypocrisy and treats with refreshing humor subjects too often talked to death. It's not a pretty place Mr. Peck shows us, but he makes us laugh at ourselves and wonder what is going on in the marketplaces of our society. (p. 41)

Jack Forman, "Children's Books: 'Secrets of the Shopping Mall'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1979, pp. 40-1.

(The entire section is 98 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

[In Amanda/Miranda] Peck has unearthed one of the hoariest of chimney-corner romantic devices—the wobbly course of love and intrigue when two young things of diverse origins and temperament look exactly alike and cross destinies; and he displays it here in late-Edwardian satin, with agile prose and a straight face…. Throughout, there are subplot and character diversions aplenty: a dark ghostly matter involving the Whitwell's "dead" son; the bright pan-banging gossip of servants; the mayfly nuptial dance of a straggly housemaid. And the proceedings are always accompanied by parades of viands and sumptuous living. All in all, a gorgeously romantic, implausible affair comfy as eiderdown.

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Publishers Weekly

A wry, though accurate, portrait of Edwardian social manners, ["Amanda/Miranda"] is something more: a penetrating study of two unusual women, written with a subtlety and vigor of style that are a continual delight.

"Fiction: 'Amanda/Miranda'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the January 18, 1980, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1980 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 217, No. 2, January 18, 1980, p. 130.

(The entire section is 67 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In Secrets of the Shopping Mall Barnie and Teresa] take refuge in a department store and soon learn that there is a whole group of young people there, living secretly in the store and rigidly organized into a tight, defensive society, with Duty Personnel, a Chairperson, guards, Night Patrol, etc. The organization and its members lampoon their real life grey flannel equivalents, so there's intrinsic wry humor to the writing, but this isn't a humorous story; although it presents an intriguing concept, it is not quite believable as realism and not quite fanciful enough to be fantasy…. Dialogue and writing style are up to Peck's usual standards, in sum, while the story line is not.

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Jane Langton

Good news for would-be writers! You too can create a costume romance about the British aristocracy, a profitable novel selected by book clubs, auctioned off to competing paperback publishers and optioned by film producers…. That is to say, anybody who has put in a lot of television watching time on Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street and all the rest of those imports, is ready to go. Just scramble them together and out will pop your novel. Of course you must try to think up a plot as brisk as [that of Richard Peck's Amanda/Miranda], in which two brunette beauties—an innocent lady's maid and her nasty mistress—are miraculously identical. Oh, what confusion in dark hallways...

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Rise Bill

In his first adult novel [Amanda/Miranda], Richard Peck whets our appetite for suspense. he includes all the classic elements of intrigue, from sumptuous passions to a voyage on the ill-starred Titanic. The implausibility of the story, however, while it might indeed charm a teenager into several flashlight-under-the-bedcovers sessions, is hardly food for the serious older reader. While Amanda/Miranda carries sophistication in its style and vocabulary, the characters cry out for a little intellectual substance. Nor do any of them vibrate with sincere emotion; they slide among an astonishing number of events with sheer gymnastic ability. Yet I recommend this novel to those interested in an imaginative...

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Biography

If we "YA" authors hang on and hang in, one of these days we'll find ourselves writing for the Second Generation—for the offspring of parents who grew up reading Judy Blume and Paul Zindel and S. E. Hinton. (p. 440)

The themes that last will surely be rephrased in future volumes. I can only assume that the enduring ones will have nothing to do with the sexual revolution, the drug culture, and racial politics. The young now and in the future are not going to be able to solve these problems. It's a sickness from the '60s that we ever expected them to. They're going to continue to draw back from such problems in search of smaller, safer worlds. Possibly the writers' challenge will be to write...

(The entire section is 414 words.)