Allison's Book Bag

Anonymously Yours by Richard Peck

Posted on: October 13, 2015

An American novelist known for his prolific contributions to modern young adult literature, Richard Peck has written over twenty novels for young people. Besides winning the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award, Peck has also been awarded the Newbery Medal in 2001 for his novel A Year Down Yonder (the sequel to A Long Way From Chicago.) In 1990, for his cumulative contribution to young-adult literature he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association.

Below is extensive biographical information about Richard Peck, taken from his memoir Anonymously Yours, which I had the privilege of getting signed by the author this month at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Later in the week, I’ll also share from Peck’s speeches, as well reviews of two of his books. Save the dates: October 14-16!


If we were content with the life around us and thought we were communicating well with people we already knew, we wouldn’t have to leave town, hole up, and hurl messages at distant strangers.

There are people who go and there are people who stay.

—S.E. Hinton, Anonymously Yours, A Memoir by Richard Peck

In his memoir, Peck follows a somewhat chronological order, detailing moments from childhood through high school as well as college and eventually through his teaching and writing career. At the same time, Peck doesn’t mind interrupting his linear narrative to indicate what moments later inspired various of his novels.

Also, his first chapter serves mostly as a prologue. In it, Peck tells of being born with itchy feet and the knowledge that he would travel in life. Indeed, at age sixteen and during his junior year, Peck took an ocean liner to England. He raised the fare for such an adventure by serving as a dishwasher. Then he spent a year in Devon, where Peck recognizes one particular professor with not only providing him with his first experience at having work professionally edited, but also helped him overcome his fear of speaking in public by assigning Peck the task of speaking on a panel of foreign students about education. While studying in Devon, Peck also learned about the differences of opinions through history courses and spent a lot of time in theater which taught him about using the right voice to tell a story. Peck also credits his time with England as being a reason he likes to incorporate geography into novels.


The sort of people who find corpses in the woods or who can successfully shoot from the center line or see themselves as heroes of their own lives don’t have to write.

In chapter two, Peck notes that he grew up in a neighborhood which featured a double row of bungalows and Dutch colonial houses. The family house stood on the corner of a park that continued to evolve over the years. In the nineteenth century, the park had been a fairgrounds with a racetrack. At one point, a log cabin had been dragged to a knoll within sight of their house. Later in Peck’s life, the park featured a roller coaster that dropped into a pond called “Dreamland Lake”. An exploration of the latter apparently cured Peck of roller coasters, but not of Dreamland Lake which was the setting and title for his second novel.

Peck also introduces readers to his parents. He described his dad as being apt to roar away on a Harley-Davidson or a 1928 hulking Packard coupe retrieved from the dump. Moreover, his dad owned shotguns and legend has it that Peck reached through the bars of his crib one day and lay his hands on one of those guns. As for his mom, she came from a prosperous farm family in Illinois, the middle of seven children, and graduated to become a dietician. She used to read to Peck to make him a successful student. Peck shares that, “I went into first grade all fired up with the idea that at the end of the first day I’d be able to read Grapes of Wrath.” To this day, her habit of reading to him influences him as a writer, in that he first hears his stories in his mother’s voice.

Peck grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. He marched into kindergarten on the day Hitler marched into Poland. War impacted both his school and community life. Students conducted marathon scrap-paper drives, recycled everything possible, never walked if they could march, played Us-Against-Them, and formed air-force squadrons and thundered in formation at recess. War also impacted his family and community life. During wartime shortages, the family fattened calves and hogs on the farms of relatives. His dad also fished and hunted, while his mom tested recipes. Victory in Europe happened while Peck was in fifth grade. From the war, he acquired a vocabulary of death and of long distance. Interestingly, at the time, television and helicopters were promised to every household.


Ironically, junior high may have been the only time when I wasn’t dreaming of being a writer. Life as it was seemed hard enough. But my favorite readers were going to be junior-high, and so what I did  I learn then that worked later?

In chapter three, Peck talked about how in junior high, he felt his kick towards college. One day while he walked the hallways at school, a teacher barred his way and asked if signed up for her Latin class. When he said no, she replied that she thought he was planning to go to college. Immediately, Peck signed up for this teacher’s class. He shared anecdotes about other teachers too such as how the industrial arts teacher assigned students to replace all the frayed wiring on their home appliances. Then there was the music teacher, who allocated them instruments for marching band. He assigned Peck the sousaphone, because of Peck’s heftier size.

Despite his claim that junior high might have been the only time he wasn’t dreaming of a being a writer, the bulk of chapter three actually focuses on novel inspirations. Peck noted how there weren’t young adult novels in his day; he didn’t meet Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye until college. “But novels even then would have helped.”

Peck spends much of chapter three talking about an experience that happened in 1977, when in his forties. A magazine editor asked him to write a short story, four pages top, and end it with a bang. She gave him three days to write it. He told her that short stories weren’t his forte. She changed his mind by offering him $300. He used humor to write a story about bullies. The story, Priscilla and the Wimps, changed Peck’s life. He liked the main characters and decided to use them again in a novel. From letters his readers had sent him, he knew that young people hit the mall on a daily basis. He drafted a coming of age novel that later he burned due to it being overly grim, but then rewrote it two years later as Secrets of the Shopping Mall. The book became one of his best-sellers.


If the writer in me was beginning to stir, there were impediments….

In talking about his high school days, Peck described the community where he grew up as being one where a kid could see money earned as well as spent. Folks consisted of the privileged and the prominent, as well as the poor, and a splinter group of honest farmers. Television was still only for the rich.

Peck also gave specifics about his own experiences, talking about how students ran laps in the absence of coaches who went out for a smoke but also learned that being able to type was just as important as being able to compose a compound sentence. Peck revealed how geometry gave him grief and so he turned to a friend to tutor him. On Saturdays, he bagged groceries at the A&P for the daily wage of $4.75. Much of his adolescence, he spent at the movies with friends.

“Did movies help me write novels? The pop-art forms of our youth became our lifetime luggage, so they probably did help. On film, characters don’t speak realistically. They speak and act to reveal character and to advance the story, and there’s a lot of editing. And like a novel, however strong the start and finish, the big challenge is to keep the story from sagging in the middle.”

As for impediments to writing, a few factors stood out to Peck. For example, how difficult making a living from writing would be. No one he knew, not even eccentric neighbors, were writers. All of the authors he studied in school were dead.

One day, Peck has the fortune of meeting the sister of a poet who had come from a nearby town. While the poet himself didn’t create any long-lasting impact, the sister apparently did. “Over and over in my novels, very young people encounter very old ones, often wise and eccentric, with wisdom to share that’s taken a lifetime to gather.”

Peck also benefited from a college-prep class. On his first paper, Miss F didn’t award him a grade. Instead she just wrote the comment, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find another topic.” From her, Peck says he learned the danger of inspiration coming ahead of grammar, how ideas are nothing without a framework for sharing them, that writing is communication not self-expression and so you’d better have the reader in mind on every line. Finally, she taught that the only real writing is rewriting, deadlines are to be met not extended, and always document with footnotes. “A novel too had to be documented on every page, not with footnotes, but with the realities of the readers.”


Calling ourselves ‘short-timers,’ we counted down the days till we could get out of the army and start our lives, and ever after we looked back, remembering the good times.

In chapter five, Peck provides details of his enrollment in the college of his choice, DePauw University. Activities were governed by the campus council. No one could have a car. Phone use wasn’t allowed between dinner and nine o’clock. Drinking more or less led to expulsion. Peck kept routine study hours. His freshman college composition professor graded down his first composition, because there wasn’t enough variation in sentence length; Peck is still careful about this skill. Students gave one another mock tests before the real exams. Finally, every year, a “Geek Week” was held, which always ended with a speaker coming from outside to condemn conformity.

Peck also informs readers that after college, young men either went on to military service or to jobs gotten while waiting for one’s number. A telephone company hired him as an “executive trainee” for the sole purpose of searching-and-destroying all pay phones from illegal businesses. Basic training took place in the winter at Fort Carson in Colorado. Upon being sent to Germany, Peck reported as a clerk. To make sure the young men were battle-ready, they were regularly called to mass formations at midnight and spent the time till breakfast scrubbing down the barracks. During his stint in the military, Peck wrote sermons for soldiers and got hired as a chaplain’s assistant.


Teaching to me was the art of the possible.

Becoming a writer, I supposed, was the kind of thing that happened to someone else, and in that I was right. I had to become someone else before I was ready to write: a teacher.

As an adult, Peck took his attention to pursuing a career as a teacher. He completed his master’s degree at Southern Illinois University, taking an assistant position to pay for it that involved teaching two sections of freshman’s English. His degree led to a position as an adult education teacher, where he discovered the teacher’s need to reassure students. After this job, he turned to teaching high school, which he refers to as one of those corners on the way to becoming a writer. While teaching in Chicago, a student made him aware that his excessive use of bulletin boards wasn’t impacting anyone, which made him aware as a writer that audience is important. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he taught gifted students.

In this chapter, Peck also writes extensively about his novels set in the suburbs, and points out that he hoped to reach readers where most of them lived and to take them a step beyond their lives. For example, he refers to Are You in the House Alone?, where the main character is alone in the end. The people around her want to put it all behind them, or blame her, while the rapist is given another chance. And takes it. No happy endings, Peck says, noting that by far it’s one of his most widely read books. He also refers to Remembering the Good Times, his young adult novel that means the most to him. Besides finding its way into classroom discussions, the letters also come. As with Are You in the House Alone?, a lot of the readers tell Peck, ‘I loved the book but hated the ending.” Peck defends his position, saying if Tray hadn’t killed himself, there would have been no book, no need for it. He also notes that he doesn’t know how to answer these letters.

On May 24, 1971, Peck left teaching. “I turned in my tenure, my hospitalization, my pension plan, my attendance book, which was in fact the first work of fiction I had ever wrote. I went home to write or die, sure I wouldn’t teach again, convinced I couldn’t do anything else. In those first quiet months, I learned that the only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you.”


Teaching is a job you never really quit; you just go and on, trying to turn life into lesson plans. I used that. I began to think of chapters with the same attention span as class periods, to think of novels as lesson plans in the guise of entertainment.

Being a writer was going to fulfill that early dream … I was going to see classrooms and school libraries in places I’d never heard of and find ideas I’d never thought of. It would be teaching without tears. I don’t have to grade anybody.

In chapter seven, Peck talks about his own writing career and that of other authors. Of the many ways his career got started, one happened because he collaborated as a teacher with a colleague on an anthology of nonfiction for Dell. Through this initiative, he met an editor who has since published all his books. Peck also refers to the fact that a new publishing field was being born, that of the young adult novel. After his first novel got published, Peck found himself being asked frequently to speak at library associations and schools.

Otherwise, much of chapter seven contains writing insights. For example, because of failing to capture student attention with Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, he realized that readers want hope. While writing one of his own novels, he found himself searching for who to narrate the story, and discovered it’s not always the most obvious choice. He wrote about a pregnant teenager mom, couldn’t muster up sympathy for her predicament, and instead found the voice of the novel in her sister.

I have selected only the highlights from Peck’s life and writing career. To find out more, I encourage you to search for a copy of his memoir, as well as to check out my blog this week for more content related to Peck. Save the dates: October 14-16!

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