Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Newbery’ Category


Last week I posted part one of two about my seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. In that post, I noted that it was special in a couple of ways. For the first time I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students, and for the first time I had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for older readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


trentreedy_signTrent Reedy’s two favorite things are the Midwest where he grew up and books. Reedy started his presentation off by talking about the power of story. A story shows the struggle of people to survive. Life is one event after another.  Authors shape life into a story arc. Events are arranged into problems and solutions. Even nonfiction can be shaped into a story.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a dorky skinny kid with long nose….

Reedy grew up in the small farm town of Dysart in Iowa. He remembers it as a great place for kids, “a safe island in a sea of corn and beans”. Together with his friends, he had fun riding around on bikes and running around in forts. Sometimes, he browsed books on wire racks at grocery stores, but most of the books stocked were Harlequin Romances.

Did anyone enjoy middle school? If so, there are the doors. 😉

“When you’re a writer, you read differently and find things work or don’t work like you think they should.” Teachers helped Reedy discover reading, but not in an expected way. For a prize, a teacher gave him a book by Ann Martin called Me and Katie by Ann Martin and about an older sister who struggles to adjust to life with her irritating younger sister. Reedy learned through ridicule (as we learn many lessons) the difference between “boys” and “girls” books, but he continued to love the book.

During high school, Reedy decided he wanted to become a writer and he attended University of Iowa with this goal in mind. At the same time, he wanted to relieve his father of some of the stress of being a pipeline worker at Northern Natural Gas, and so he joined the Iowa National Guard.

Hoping to get back in time for college, Reedy accepted the first job offered him, that of Combat Engineer job. He now calls that decision, “the stupidest way to enlist”. Combat Engineers deal with landmines and plastic explosives. One needs to know what they’re doing, but Reedy was not a “Cowboy Commando” or “Super Soldier”. Despite his stint as a Combat Engineer, Reedy did graduate college and even served as a security guard at Dillards.

My whole life changed. I had lived in Riverside, Iowa, for nine years and never had to leave. Now I to say goodbye to family. I left an envelope of letters with my brother. These are the “If you are reading these letters….” Those are tough to write.

trentreedy_girlThe call to return to duty upset him. “Maybe it was easier to be angry than to be scared.” He was mad to leave home. He was also disappointed to hear his lead officer tell his unit that they were there to help. Reedy simply wanted revenge for 9/11. But when he got there and saw the kids and the moms, he couldn’t keep up the anger. There are thousands like those kids and the moms and they aren’t to blame.

His unit rented an Afghan house. It wasn’t designed for sixty soldiers with equipment. The temperature was 90 degrees and very hot. The unit would return from combat, take off their army wear, and their uniforms would be sweated through. Life wasn’t easy. They would maybe get three minutes of a shower every three days. If the well was dry and there was no water, too bad. For food, they’d get two sodas, glob of lasagna, and a little bit of corn.

One day I admired my tan, it began to itch, and I realized it was just dirt. The Taliban would threaten us daily. I had spent my whole life measuring time by crops, but in Afghanistan it was gun, filth, and fears.

Reedy talked about one simply tried to hold onto “who you were, who you are, and to stay that way until you can leave”. There was no time for anything but combat and sleep. There was no room to unpack. The arrival of a truck, despite food being spoiled because the refrigeration had gone out, changed Reedy. The truck was carrying mail too. His wife had sent him a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Reedy needed that book. He needed something more than dirt, guns, war. He needed hope and beauty. The book “was a glorious reminder of friendship and that we can still find hope in the most challenging times.” As long as there were kids who could have friends, he could survive. And if he never made it back, it’d be okay. “It’s hard to live without music, art, literature, beauty.”

One day Reedy saw two kids playing. One had a box with a string and he’d drag it along. The girl just had yarn. “My parents were poor, but we had more than string. This is when I started to take this war to heart.” He saw a girl with a cleft lip and knew his unit had to help. They collected money to provide for her transportation to a doctor and for the surgery. She became the symbol for Reedy of all Afghans face, especially the girls and women. “The best moment was seeing her smile. I grew up being teased for my nose, but nothing like this girl must have faced. I promised her that I’d do anything I could to help her.”

Our leader called out “Dismissed”. One word and the total control of army was over. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free and alive.

When Reedy returned to Iowa, he set about keeping his promise by writing a book. He spent four years on it. Writing about an Afghan wedding was one of the toughest parts. Afghan weddings are detailed and he couldn’t find a common source. Then there was a scene that his writing instructor, Rita Williams Garcia, told him to cut. It was a violent and tragic scene, but Reedy felt the girl who inspired it deserved to be remembered, and so kept it. Words into Dust was also hard to write, because so many events from war had inspired it.

One day you’re feeling down. You think you’re going to spend the rest of your life grading papers. The kids will never get what “adverb is”. (It has verb right in it!) Then you get the call.

After finishing his manuscript, Reedy struggled to find a market. It was considered unlikely that a white Iowan could write from the viewpoint of an Afghan girl. Reedy himself wished that the girl could write her own book but, at the time he wrote Words into Dust, there was 90% illiteracy for females in Afghanistan. An intern gave his book a chance.

Reedy wrapped up his presentation by talking about the inspiration behind a few of his other books. Stealing Air is based on small towns. “In books there are always rich kids. Or they’re from cities. For us, rich is having a power glove for a Nintendo. I try to bring out small town experience in my books.”

If You’re Reading This was harder for Reedy to write than Words in Dust. “If I move events around, I worry that I’ll mess up everything. For each version, there’s a dozen revisions. There are also many versions where everything IS switched around.” By version six, Reedy was so frustrated that he started to swear. Finally, by version nine, Reedy started to feel as if things were working okay. There’s a letter at the end that Reedy wrote to his father.

trentreedy_msIn talking about his books, Reedy reminded aspiring writers in our audience that writing is in the revision. He showed a breakdown of how many edits his editor sent him, even after the book had already received multiple revisions. “The writing process is long. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s about the process and not about you.”

Reedy next referred to his opening line about how story is power. “This is the way I deal with things, through stories. I hope my stories will help others deal with situations in their own lives.” Reedy is a firm believer that books matter. They might be about different people and places, but there’s always “power in art, literature, and beauty”. Afghanistan taught Reedy that life isn’t just about the basics or survival. Without inspiration, we die inside. Books matter.


Back then no one was talking about multiculturalism and so my parents thought they were doing the right thing, I’m glad that I can speak English as my first language but regret that I don’t know Korean. It’s harder for adults to learn and I can still only speak a little Korean. Before I traveled to Korea I learned the most important question “Where’s the bathroom?”

Linda Sue Park’s parents are from Korea, but she was born and raised in Illinois. There weren’t any other Asians in her childhood neighborhood but, because her family wanted her to do well in America, the family never talked Korean. Even so, they did eat Korean food and celebrate Korean holidays.

lindasuepark_babyphotosFor example, birthdays are big events. When Koreans celebrates a birthday, they wear special traditional clothes, attend a party, and play a game call The Fortune Game. In the latter, several objects are put on a table. Whatever object the birthday person grabs predicts their future:

  • pen—writer
  • book—teacher
  • spool of thread—long life
  • money—rich
  • cake—greedy and lazy

Park’s mom has told her that she grabbed the pen but there is no proof other than her word.

Where do I get ideas? For me the answer is complicated. Some books are a mix of ideas. Others do have that one Eureka moment.

After hooking her audience with a brief bio, Park turns to a discussion of her book Long Walk to Water. Her husband is a journalist and does stories on all kinds of people. He told her about Selba, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and said she should meet him. Her husband was right. “I was blown away by this guy. I even started telling strangers about him. I don’t usually do that but that’s how impressed I was.” After several years, she had a DUH moment. Instead of continuing to share Selba’s story to each new person she met, with a book, she could tell his story to multiple people all at once. Her husband had already written about him for an adult audience, but Park could reach young people.

Selba had been in school. His class heard bombs. The teacher said run away, but not home, and so they did. The boys became The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was a perilous journey. 5000 people died along the way. “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you would not have made it.” Every day was about finding food. Even clothing was traded for food.

lindasuepark_lostboysPark emphasized that everything she wrote in A Long Walk to Water is true. She then talked about how at one point, American visas were issued for many of the refugees. These were all halted, however, after bombing of Washington Memorial. All visas issues for those not already in the US were revoked. Park told of an especially devastating moment when a plane on its way to the US was ordered to go back. Since that time, there hasn’t been a new program put in place for the refugees.

Park’s husband has visited Sudan. He saw how the boys would go with cattle, stay with them, and then return at the end of the day. Some boys have education. The girls would instead walk four to eight hours to fetch water. They rarely had education. The building of wells is bringing about change. The girls are now getting to go to school too. UNICEF says the best way to combat illiteracy and poverty is to teach girls. They will educate others. Selba is the one bringing in the wells.

When The Long Walk to Water first got published, it received some good reviews but didn’t really make a splash. Then New York redid its curriculum. A librarian added Park’s book and it began to do well. This excited Park. She’d hoped people would see Selba has a hero. And they have. But the book has also inspired young people to help.
lindasuepark_wellsThe Long Walk to Water is a concrete example of how a book can help change the world. Building a well costs over $15,000. Young people have raised over one million to bring wells to Sudan. Many schools do $5000, which is a third of the cost. Over ninety of the wells in Sudan have been funded by students who have read the book. The most popular fundraiser is a walkathon, which helps students understand what the girls feel in having to walk. A quarter of a million people are using the wells.

Currently, Linda Sue Park lives New York. Like many women, she has a lot of jobs: wife, mom, grandma, writer, speaker, teacher of writing, pet sitter. This makes her always tired, but she’s also grateful for everything she has. “I have an awesome life: books, babies, and puppies.”


I started writing Wayside Stories back in 1970, before students I talk to were born, and even many of their teachers were born. It’s good the book has been around so long, but it makes me feel old.

Louis Sachar was the lunch speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. He jumped quickly into talking about one of his most famous series, which was inspired by being a schoolyard supervisor. Back in his college days, Sachar’s favorite authors were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He enrolled in a class where he would study the original Russian, but found the language too much of a struggle. While trying to figure out what to take instead, Sachar encountered a school girl in the middle of Berkeley campus handing out slips of paper that read: “Help. We need teacher’s aide. Earn 3 credits.” He thought it started easier and so volunteered. Long story short, he loved the experience. “It was my favorite thing to leave the heavy world of campus and be with joyful kids.” After a time, the school needed someone to be a noon supervisor, and was willing to pay. The teachers wanted to take a break, but all Sachar had to do was hang out with the kids, and so he applied.

louissachar_signAfter Sachar graduated from Berkeley, because he’d always been interested in writing, he wrote a kids’ book. His first attempt took him ten months. The students where he had worked had called him “the yard teacher”. He turned himself into the character of Louis the yard teacher and featured some of the students. Then he set about trying to get the book published.

A small company accepted Wayside Stories. The book didn’t do well initially because the company had small distribution. He didn’t make much money from it or see it on many shelves, but had faith that felt it would do well if it would get noticed. Sachar received some fan mail and a “Book of the Year” award from New York schools. Then the company went out of business and the book went out of print.

I don’t outline. My best ideas come as I write. I try to get a page written, then take a break to play bridge. For a while, I feel there’s nothing getting done. But after a year I end up with something that works. I don’t talk about my books while writing them because then they become cemented and I want to be open to change.

Sachar didn’t give up, but went on to write There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. The book came about because a friend told Sachar about something that had happened to him in fifth grade. He knew Sachar wrote for kids and so was telling him about his childhood. When this friend was new to San Diego, a teacher brought him up to the front of the class. The teacher asked “Why don’t you sit over there?” but the class said to not sit next to Donny. Sachar’s friend said that was okay with wherever he sat, but the teacher agreed with the class. Sachar changed the names, but put the incident in a book. Editors told him that no teacher would act this way and it wasn’t believable and so wanted to cut the incident. But the story was true and so Sachar kept it.

A lot of publishers rejected There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. One editor expressed an interest but didn’t think there was enough to the story. Sachar asked to see her and she eventually bought the book despite not feeling it would do well. She took him out to lunch and invited another author. Sachar asked the author if she had ever taught. Proving how small of a world we sometimes live in, and how contacts can matter, it turned out the author’s mother had been a character in Sideway Stories. The mother was giving out copies of his book every year to her students. Eventually, the book got republished.

Among his fan mail were letters from a school in Texas. The students told him that their teacher had read his books and liked them. A handful of girls even wrote a letter saying that their teacher was attracted to him and she was single. Louis called up the school. The school was excited to have him visit. Girls made him cookies. The aforementioned teacher invited a group of colleagues to go out to a local restaurant. A counselor came along. Sachar and the counselor hit it off. They visited. He put her in a book. Eventually, he married her.

The idea for Holes came about from living in Austin. As much as Sachar and his family liked it there, Austin is very hot in the summers. And the summers are long. They start in May and they drag into September and October. One day Sachar had to do yard work and he got to thinking about a new character. He’d written close to twenty books about school and didn’t want to do another with that setting and so he put his character in a prison-type camp. About the same time, he took a trip with his daughter to Alcatraz, without telling anyone that the setting fit in perfectly with what I was writing.

What got me started was the excitement of kids and joy of youth. I didn’t seem as little darlings but as real people. I also didn’t have much trouble tapping into my feelings as a kid. Now I struggle. I like writing about kids because they still have the whole world open to them. Lately though, I have a more pessimistic view and that makes it hard to write to kids.

Five years ago, Sachar started to write Fuzzy Mud, when the question for him had become: “How can I write another children’s book?” The main character for Fuzzy Mud kept him going and inspired. In a world where everyone is jaded, her friends call her goody-goody, but she still tries to do right. She goes to a private school where kids are taught to be virtuous and is made to memorize ten virtues. She’s largely ignored but, as things turn scary, she draws on an inner strength. “Despite all the bad in the world, there’s still energy, good, and virtue. I started out trying to write a scary book, but then I kept going because of her.”


The thing about growing up in my neighborhood is that everyone looked out for everyone but there were no education values. Working hard and being loyal were the values. We didn’t hear the message of education.

mattdelapenaMatt De La Pena grew up on border of Mexico in National City. A reluctant reader in high school, Pena read only three books as a student. One of those was House on Durango Street, which he felt was about his neighborhood, and he reread twelve times. “We need an invitation early on to people, community, and language that feel authentic.”

Pena was the first in his family to attend college, but he felt guilty about this success, as if he were selling-out for going to college. While being interested in what the teacher said, he often also thought about his family who weren’t getting to hear the lectures and about how real life was happening back home. When he’d first visit home, his uncles would ask him about college, but their eyes told him that they were waiting to see if he’d judge them.

Hispanics have the highest drop-out rate in the country and it’s taken time for them to see education has a good thing. Having an insider helps the family see the positive.

In college, Pena fell in love with books. Mostly he read books about the African-American and then Hispanic experience. One favorite was a short story collection called Drown, which focuses on the Dominic Republic, by Junot Diaz. Pena also fell in love with writing. His professors collected his work and sent it to five graduate schools. He got accepted by two for Masters in Fine Arts.

Pena going to college has been a mixed blessing. There are both losses and gains. Pena shared a story to explain. Pena was born when his dad was still young. His dad was a high-school dropout. He worked in the zoo as a sanitation person. He moved up to cleaning The Tiger River enclosure. He’d pick up whiskers and mail them to his girlfriend for good luck. He got to do behind-the-scenes tours and showed Paul Simon around. “Man, that dude is short,” his dad later said. (Subtext: His dad is tall.) “You know I shook his hand. He had the softest hand I ever touched.” (Subtext: His dad’s hands have calluses from hard work.) After Pena introduced his dad to books, his dad got his GED, then an education degree from college, and now he teacher in a migrant community. A migrant worker thanked Pena’s dad for giving him education but Pena pointed out, “My dad’s hands are soft in contrast.” Yet on the flip side, his dad now loves books. The first book he read was 100 years of Solitude, which he’s read five times.

I didn’t start out being a writer. But I used to always write poems. People might not be born to writers but they have an interesting way of looking at the world. Those often make good writers.

After Pena shared his background, he talked about his books. Balls Don’t Lie, which was made into a movie, had several inspirations. Pena used to play pick-up basketball and it a rule to never write a story about basketball. The vow lasted three weeks. Pena “learned about the world by play outside the rules. There’s a weird class system. In gritty San Diego, one sold jewelry or sold drugs or one worked at a gas station or in security. He wrote about “powerless powerful men.” Pena’s mom was a foster kid. The family doesn’t know what kind of white she is except that she’s French. In Balls Don’t Life, he explored: “What happens when a kid is moved from place to place without any control?”

Mexican White Boy is the most autobiographical. It raises the question: “Who is the most mixed?” When Pena was growing up, no one would acknowledge being mixed. Now almost everyone will say that they’re mixed. “The world is changing and people are now owning it. The highest growing demographic is mixed.” Pena expanded by using an illustration of his grandmother, who he believes made the best Mexican tortillas. She passed out tortillas based on family rank. “I’d get the first because I looked so light skin.” Pena believes that mixed is: “interesting and complicated” and likes to talk about “brown and brown racism”.

We Were There was inspired by Mice and Men. It’s also written as part of Pena’s evolution in going from writing about mixed kids to featuring mixed kids. It. “When I visited prisons, 97% of them were brown. When I visited the festival, 97% of them are white. This book was a chance to explore group homes.” With most of his books, Pena starts with character but with this one he began with plot. He knew there was going to be a crime. The character didn’t come later until when Pena was giving a presentation. “There was a young girl who left to go to bathroom. She was going to miss my presentation. Another girl took her seat. I thought maybe the young girl would protest. She stood in the back. A guy gave the girl his seat. I stopped and complimented him and asked him questions. Now I knew the character’s name was Miguel and the fact that he would give up his seat.” The guy became the heartbeat of the book.

mattdelapena_marketplaceAfter writing a few books about mixed groups, Pena took a different direction. He discovered that many copies of his books exist in underprivileged schools but not in urban books. One librarian told Pena that she loved his books but didn’t carry them because they didn’t have “those type of kids” in their school. So, he began to start featuring mixed kids without addressing the issue of mixed kids. “Diverse books aren’t just for diverse kids but are for everyone.”

Perhaps the book of Pena’s that most excited everyone is Last Stop on Marketplace, a picture book that won the Newbery. It took Pena five months to write and six months to revise. In that time, he rewrote it  100 times. He thought it needed to be big and tried forty different endings, but then returned to the small one. The surprise ending was intended: Kids would ask him as an author why would he come to their school and so the book is about the grandson seeing that he’s important in the world.

In ending his presentation, Pena encouraged aspiring authors to write what they can feel. To explain, he shared how a reader who liked his book about basketball but yet his favorite parts aren’t the basketball parts. “If you can’t access the feeling right away of a topic, then you shouldn’t be the one who tells the story. You can research a ton but it’ll only work if you feel the topic.”


To my surprise, A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck is a novel told in stories rather than a straightforward narrative. As I began to dip into the stories, I also discovered that the real heroine of this short story cycle isn’t a young person but Grandma Dowdel. Despite not being what I expected, I enjoyed Peck’s touching and funny novel.

Eight stories depict several summer vacations as spent by Joey and Alice with their grandmother who lives in a rural Illinois town. The first tale starts with the riveting line, “You wouldn’t think we’d have to live Chicago to see a dead body.” No truth was better spoken for not even the big city crimes of Chicago offered as much excitement to the two siblings than the larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel who tricks a reporter into believing in ghosts, rescues the town from the terror of the Cowgill boys, sets illegal fish traps to feed drifters, bakes a pie to save her town’s honor, comes to the aid of mismatched lovers, outwits a banker, and has a showdown with her closet friend over whose family has the world’s oldest veteran. Each lengthy story is narrated by grandson Joey, as he looks back to share adventures riveting enough to make your heart race and reflective memories of his grandmother that will make you smile. The latter results in poignant lines such as there’s all different kinds of truth and we all grow up faster than we wish.

Not only does rural Illinois offer more excitement than Chicago, but Grandma Dowdel is far from your ordinary relative. Whether or not her deceased husband used a twelve-gauge, double-barreled Winchester Model 21 to ducks, it comes in handy more than once against trespassers and supposed ghosts. In front of her grandchildren, she tells whoppers to a reporter and deliberately pretends her milk has been spoiled by neighborhood hoodlums drowning mice in it. She also sets illegal traps to catch catfish and steals a boat from the town sheriff. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea from my list that Grandma Dowdel isn’t above playing the part of a con artist or even of breaking the law. Now the truth is she’s kind of like a Robin Hood and all other those outlaws who felt serving the people gave them a right to their actions. Despite being a reclusive, Grandma Dowdel makes it a point to help keep law and order in her community, feed the hungry and homeless, ensure her grandson won his coveted ride on an airplane, and keep the bank from foreclosing on the house of her sworn enemy and friend. Her influence becomes on her grandchildren becomes apparent when they become involved in their own charade.

All eight stories are memorable but I have to admit my favorite is “The Day of Judgement”. In this short, the town banker’s wife asks Grandma Dowdel to bake a pie for the country fair. The town wishes to keep their name in front of the public and believes Grandma can do it with her gooseberry pie. To convince Grandma, a ride is even offered to both her and the grandchildren. Grandma spent three busy days preparing for that fair. In the end though, she couldn’t pull off first prize. I like this story best, because it shows a vulnerable side to an otherwise tough woman. The town felt fine with the results, because a second place ribbon still did them well. She however had her pride and her grandson to consider. The first-place winner would win a ride in the airplane and Grandma desired this prize for Joey.

This week has given me a promising introduction to Richard Peck, but already I wish to check out more of his writings. To date, I have read his memoir, some of his poetry and short story collections, and A Long Way Home from Chicago. In other words, I still need to regular one of his more straightforward novels. Stay tuned. 😉

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

What is the role of the opening line? How does an author know which character should narrate a story? Those are questions that the prolific Newbury-winning author, Richard Peck, addressed at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. What follows are the highlights of his presentations, based on notes taken by myself and a writing critique partner. If you ever have opportunity to hear this young adult author from Illinois, I highly encourage you to soak up his advice.

Peck started his first presentation by informing us that this is a workshop. He handed out two sheets and told listeners that we’ll work on two things, finding a start and finding a voice. The one sheet contained a list of Peck’s ten favorite opening lines. The second sheet contained the first page of a popular novel with the assignment to find an alternative opening line.

Once upon a time, Peck received an invitation to speak at Calvin College. From that experience, he produced a novel. Having only forty-five minutes to teach students how to write a novel, Peck decided to talk what’s most important for an author. “You’re only as good as your opening line. If readers don’t like the first line, they won’t like the book.”

Peck pictured working with a small group, but ended up instead with 500 fifth-grade students, with teachers at the front who had already asked to be dismissed. His heart sunk, but he plunged ahead, “You are only as good as your opening line. Put something in your first sentence that interests your teacher.” Silence. The students hadn’t ever thought about trying to interest a teacher. After all, teachers are paid for their job. Someone finally called out, “Coffee.” In his afternoon session, there were 500 seventh-graders. A guy finally yelled, “Trouble.”

As for Peck, his opening line was: “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t the bad time of year for it.” This line gave him his first standing ovation. Then he had to write a novel to go with it. The Teacher’s Funeral not only got written, but it won the Christopher Medal from a Roman Catholic school.

Peck shared that he’s a collector of opening lines. He spends an hour in the bookstore every week copying lines from published books. Nowadays, Peck cautions, you have to be your own editor. The best most recent opening line in his opinion came from Carmen Deedy, “He was the best of Toms, the worst of Toms.” Peck goes on to advise: Never start with sappy. Start with a young person and something active. If mother has to be on the front page at all, make sure she is bad. J If you’re writing for young people, you’re writing for a world that they’re trying to reach outside of adults. Also, never mind writing about a shooting, but pay attention instead to what happens after it. Establish voice, by eliminating yourself and writing how your character would. Most importantly, grab readers with the first line.

Next, Peck talked about his own writing process. He begins a novel as if he were reading it, not writing it. On that first day, he writes a page, then rewrites it until he can’t read that page, and finally types it all over again. Then he finds three more changes. When he gets the page exactly the way he wants, he takes out one word. We all overwrite. Why? According to Peck, none of us are confident that we’re getting across the message. So we talk more. We should write less.

By page 40, if the narrator isn’t coming with ideas Peck never had, he gets rid of the narrator. It’s a casting call, one which he never initially does right. He’s now used to it. He has to use the wrong character to get to the right one.

Fifteen months, he writes. When done, he throws away the first chapter without looking at it. Then he writes the first chapter with the knowledge of what will happen. It’s helpful to outline the whole novel on the first page. Does that happen when you first write? No. Peck often goes back and lays out clues that he didn’t have when he first wrote the book. The first page is the table of contents. It just doesn’t look like it. When one looks at the first line, it’s an embarrassing one. He might have to flip through the entire book to find the best way to start.

You’re only as good as your first line. And no one ever has a good enough to start. That of course means everyone has to rewrite.


A fourth-grade teacher once gave Peck a book and told him, “You might want to try this.” The minute Peck met the characters of Huckleberry Finn, he knew he wanted to write. “Children’s lives are often changed by a teacher–working off of the syllabus, not teaching to a standardized test.”

After sharing this story, Peck talked about cover art. Packaging shapes a story and authors often lose  readers due to the cover art. If you ask an author why they allowed a certain cover, Peck said, you might even get a sermon. Sometimes authors do have influence. When Peck got asked about the cover for his recent mouse book, he immediately asked for British uniforms because those are the best. The cover art won a prize. But Peck doesn’t always get a choice. Peck disliked the choice of cover art for The River Between Us, because this novel focuses on a civil war soldier but the cover art was of a southern girl. Most boys won’t read a book with a girl on the cover. Peck suggested that teachers send students to the library to analyze the cover.

Next, Peck turned again to the writing process. A story actually begins before the opening line. In other words, there’s always something that comes before that shapes our characters “We never write in our own voices because we couldn’t get that stuff published.” Indeed, writing is a great escape, where we get to create characters and pretend to be another person.

For The River Between Us, Richard Peck found part of the story in the New Orleans Historical Society.  He took 500 pages of notes for over two years before finding the voices.  He found the voices for his characters in historical letters, reading books from that time period and from the songs of that time. “You talk yourself back, back, back, until you are there and you hear their voices.”

Sometimes when you begin a book, you don’t have the right character telling the story. For Peck’s first book, Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, he started writing with the voice of one character but she “clammed up” and couldn’t tell her own story because it was too personal.  He tried a different main character, but it was too emotional.  Finally, he found a voice in the younger sister. “It’s not the story; it’s who tells it.” Give yourself permission to get rid of characters that aren’t working.

Always write in the voice of the character. That means in the first person. Authors want a character who can stand closer to the reader than an author can. You can’t get that from third person.

No one ever told Peck as a student to write in first person. Instead teachers advised him to always justify everything you write. That also made a novelist out of him. All writing is research. A novel is a document too.

For teachers, Peck said students should be encouraged to write from the viewpoints of others, not in their own voice. Students don’t have enough experience to write from their own voice.  The one person they really don’t know is themselves.  People think fiction is real life with the names changed.  It is really an alternative universe. Children need to be writing more fiction.

Although Peck left teaching to become a writer, he asserts that his attendance book was his first work of fiction. Teaching gave him characters and voices before becoming a writer. “You’re never ready to write until you find the readers you want to write for.”


I come from New York, the publishing capital. I come bearing bad news. New York doesn’t know where Nebraska is. Rainbow Rowell, Loreen Eisley, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mari Sandoz, Willa Cather. Everyone owes a debt to Willa Cather. May every son and daughter know these authors….

More often than not, the luncheon speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival will speak about the state of education and of books in our modern world. Peck was no exception. In his opinion, story must come first. Most of what we are comes from those first five years. If schools fail to educate, it is because children have already been failed before they came to school.

Moreover, Peck contends, reading books is the last family pact. It’s the best defense against the digital dystopia that young people will create with the electronics given to them from parents. We believe in nothing unless it’s written down.

Story must come first. History repeats itself. Story is not a substitute for history. But history repeats in story too. Peck fell in love with history from novels like Red Badge of Courage and Gone with the Wind. We owe young people the geography of story.

Peck believes that we need story as a remedy against the standardized test. The latter will not work, because it can’t reform the home lives of students. Tests are devised by those who are far removed from education. Politics is the enemy of education.

There is no time to read. Phones are never switched off. Computers glow late into the night. There is no patience for the hyperactive child.

After this opening, Peck shares some of his own life story as proof. He came to writing late in life, not until age 37. But he also feels better prepared than today’s youth. His mom read to him. She filled him up with words. He’s a writer because of her. She wouldn’t let him be hyperactive. 😉

Like most writers, he also owes his career to a teacher. Miss Thelma Franklin taught senior English to college bound. Peck had gotten used to receiving A’s. She didn’t give me an A but just wrote, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find a more interesting topic.” Peck was seventeen. He wondered, “What could be more interesting than me?” Anything, his teacher told him. He went to the library. He still goes there.

A story is always about something that never happened to the author, Peck advises. Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit. JK Rowling did not attend Hogwarts. Gary Paulson was never dropped into the Great American Woods without an axe. Instead the Great American Woods is a metaphor for middle school. Everyone writes out of research. No one ever came a writer without being a reader. We don’t write what we know, Peck contends, but what we can find out. “If I limited to what I knew, I would have just one haiku. The River Between Us took years to gather information. Someone asked him if he wrote from the novel from his own experience. “I had been talking about the Civil War. I don’t remember the Civil War.”

To end his luncheon presentation, Peck confessed, “I’m about to break the writer’s rule. Don’t tell them about your next book. Or the one they can’t buy today. My next one will be out in a year. I just finished writing the jacket flap for it…. I hope my story is about love, loss, family, and not political. History occurs even when it’s not happening at school.”

Past, Perfect, Present Tense is a unique collection by Richard Peck. Not only does it contain a baker’s dozen worth of masterful stories by the Newbery-winning author, but it also contains author notes about those stories and tips for aspiring writers. An engaging read at just under 200 pages, this collection is a worthy addition to the shelves of any Peck fan.

First, let’s talk about the thirteen stories. They comprise four sections: The First, The Past, The Supernatural, and The Present. One story, Peck’s first short, stands alone. Each subsequent section contains four stories each. Of the stories set in the past, I can’t pick a favorite. “Electric Summer” is a poignant tale about a farm kid who finds her twentieth-century futures at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. To my shame, “The Special Powers of Blossom Culp” is my introduction to one of Peck’s most infamous characters. How could I have missed this character when compiling my round-up of misfits or so-called bad kids? Then there’s “By Far The Worst Pupil at Long Point School,” which draws on Peck’s family history and includes a surprise twist. Of the stories set in the present, being a fan of animal stories, I enjoyed reading what is apparently Peck’s only cat story. But it’s not my favorite. Instead I’m torn between “I Go Along” and “The Three-Century Women”. Each of these stories not only offers raises questions but also take the main characters a step beyond their routine life and thereby provide quite a satisfying end. As for the four supernatural stories in the middle, I’ll leave you to discover your own favorite. J

Next, let’s talk about the author notes. Peck says that the first proves that a writer can’t have a master plan for his career. Prior to “Priscilla and the Wimps” Peck was strictly a novelist but this short, as Peck also explained in his memoir, opened up a door to other opportunities. The four stories set in the past had the most fascinating origins, three of them being as a result of call to submit to an anthology. Moreover, these three also each led to Peck writing a full-length novel. The story “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” which inspired the Newbery honor A Long Way from Chicago, actually began as a short story submission to a collection of a series of gun stories. The four stories based on the supernatural Peck doesn’t talk much about, because he didn’t want to give away the endings, but he does reveal that his dabbling in the genre arose in response to pleas from junior high students for horror. Both from his memoir and this collection, I learned that the Disney movie, Child of Glass, is based on a Peck novel. I sense a movie rental ahead! What stands out most about Peck’s comments regarding his four realistic stories is his observation that one never knows when a writer might be “right beside you, hunting and gathering for a future story”. To flip that around, aspiring writers also might never know when something they see happen will make a good story. 😉

Finally, let’s talk about Peck’s tips for inspiring writers. His introduction lists and explains four questions that all fiction should ask the reader. The most well-known question Peck poses is: “What if?” For my writing students, I often change this to: “Why?” What gave me most pause in this section was Peck’s assertion that, “A short story is never an answer; always a question.” His conclusion provides five helpful hints. The most established hint Peck provides is: “Nobody But A Reader Ever Become a Writer.” Sometimes I also hear the added advice to analyze books too. As a reviewer, I’ve learned far more about how “a story shapes, speaks up, and sums up” through my posts than I did my simply reading books. What stood out most to me in this section was Peck’s revelation that he takes six drafts to perfect his writings.

Although I discovered Peck as a young adult through his poems and novels, my latest encounter with him has evolved as much around his fiction as his advice. I’m enjoying the experience and hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to post content related to him. Save the dates: October 15-16!

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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I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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