Richard Peck

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031

Born: April 5, 1934

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Birthplace: Decatur, Illinois

Died: May 23, 2018

Place of death: New York City, New York

Principal Works

Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972)

Close Enough to Touch (1981)

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A Long Way from Chicago (1998)

A Year Down Yonder (2000)

A Season of Gifts (2009)

The Best Man (2016)

Biography

Richard Peck was an American writer who was perhaps best known for his young adult Newbery Medal–winning novel A Year Down Yonder (2000), the sequel to Peck's A Long Way from Chicago (1998), a Newbery Honor book in 1999. At age thirty-seven, Peck quit his teaching career to become a writer and publish his first novel Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972). Peck told Heather Vogel Frederick for Publishers Weekly, “I would never have been a writer if I hadn't been a teacher first.” From that point, he wrote more than thirty books for young adults and younger readers. Peck received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in 1990, and in 2002, he was the first children's book author to receive a National Humanities Medal from the White House.

Peck was born on April 10, 1934, in Decatur, Illinois. He lived with his mother, who was a dietitian, and his father, who was a salesman. He attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and in 1955, when Peck was a junior, he traveled to the United Kingdom to spend a year studying at the University of Exeter. The students there, Peck recalled to Jennifer M. Brown for Publishers Weekly, were “a generation who had grown up under the tables and in the bomb shelters of World War II. To Peck, his classmates seemed “immensely tempered,” while he felt “so big and wholesome and untried.” Back in Indiana, Peck graduated from DePauw in 1956, and after graduation was drafted into military service and sent to West Germany. While there he ghostwrote sermons for his company's nondenominational chaplain.

When Peck returned to the United States he enrolled in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and worked as a graduate teaching assistant, while earning his master's degree. He began teaching English at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, in 1961. Later, the school would provide Peck with an idea for the setting in his 1981 novel Close Enough to Touch. In 1963 he took a job with a textbook publishing company in Chicago, and in 1965 he moved to New York City to become an English instructor at Hunter College and Hunter College High School. By chance, Peck was asked to work with another instructor to compile a book of essays, which included author Jack Kerouac and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Compiling the book was Peck's first foray into the exclusive world of New York publishing; he credits his students and the contacts he made at the school for giving him the courage to pursue a writing career. Peck first met George Nicholson, an editor at Dell Paperbacks, when Peck was an English teacher at Hunter College. Peck turned in his first novel for young adults to Nicholson, who was then working at Holt Publishing. Peck quit his teaching job in 1971, and his first book Don't Look and It Won't Hurt was published in 1972. His final book, the middle-grade novel The Best Man, was published in 2016. Peck lived on New York's Upper East Side. Following a battle with cancer, he died in Manhattan on May 23, 2018.

Major Works

After teaching, Peck felt he had a better understanding of teenagers and determined that he wanted to write for the thoughtful, quiet students who are often overlooked. Peck's two most popular books for young adults are A Long Way from Chicago (1998) and A Year Down Yonder (2000). The first is a novel told in a series of vignettes spanning thirteen years. Peck's readers are introduced to a boy named Joey, and his little sister, Mary Alice. In the book, Peck focuses on the duo's summertime adventures with their Grandmother Dowdel, who lives in rural southern Illinois. In the last story, Joey, on his way to war, visits his grandmother when his train makes a stop nearby. The Kirkus Review wrote, “Peck weaves a wry tale that ranges from humorous to poignant,” he “deftly captures the spirit of the times.” The review called the book “remarkable and fine.”

The sequel, A Year Down Yonder (2000), takes place during the so-called Roosevelt recession in 1937. In this book, Joe and Mary Alice's parents struggle to get back on their feet, while fifteen-year-old Mary Alice spends a year living with Grandma Dowdel, and Joey joins the Civilian Conservation Corps and heads west. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that A Year Down Yonder “reveals a marshmallow heart inside Grandma's rock-hard exterior and adroitly exposes the mutual, unspoken affection she shares with her granddaughter.” Peck's folksy tale-telling skills in the Grandma Dowdel series reflect his affection for where he grew up. “I find the Midwest very underrepresented in fiction,” Peck told Frederick, “and the older I get, the more meaningful those childhood memories are.”

Further Reading

  • Brown, Jennifer M. “Richard Peck: A Long Way from Decatur.” Publishers Weekly, 21 July 2003, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20030821/22661-richard-peck-a-long-way-from-decatur.html. Accessed 7 May 2015.
  • Gallo, Donald R., and Wendy J. Glenn. Richard Peck: The Past Is Paramount. Scarecrow, 2009.
  • Peck, Richard. “Interview with Newbery Award-Winning ‘A Year Down Yonder’ Author Richard Peck.” Interview by Henry Herz. Examiner.com, 25 Feb. 2014, www.examiner.com/article/interview-with-newbery-award-winning-a-year-down-yonder-author-richard-peck. Accessed 7 May 2015.

Bibliography

  • “Author Richard Peck '56 Wins Coveted Newbery Medal.” DePauw University, 16 Jan. 2001, www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/11380/. Accessed 7 May 2015.
  • “A Long Way from Chicago.” Review of A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck. Kirkus, 1 Sept. 1998, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/richard-peck/a-long-way-from-chicago/. Accessed 8 May 2015.
  • “A Long Way from Chicago: A Novel in Stories.” Review of A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck. Publishers Weekly, 1 Sept. 1998, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8037-2290-3. Accessed 8 May 2015.
  • “Q&A with Richard Peck.” Interview by Heather Vogel Frederick. Publishers Weekly, 24 Sept. 2009, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/28-q-a-with-richard-peck.html. Accessed 7 May 2015.
  • Sandomir, Richard. "Richard Peck, Acclaimed Author for Young Readers, Dies at 84." The New York Times, 27 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/obituaries/richard-peck-acclaimed-author-for-young-readers-dies-at-84.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
  • “A Year Down Yonder.” Review of A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck. Publishers Weekly, 1 Oct. 2000, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8037-2518-8. Accessed 8 May 2015.

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