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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Peck

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.”

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!

Wishlist Wednesday

Wishlist Wednesday is a book blog hop from Pen to Paper that invites ones to post about one book per week that has been on their wishlist for some time, or just added, and that you can’t wait to get off the wishlist and onto your wonderful shelves.

Seven years ago, I discovered Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival and fell in literary heaven. At that time, I didn’t even have a blog. Since then, my reportage of the festival here at Allison’s Book Bag has increased from simple highlights to the inclusion of author interviews and guest posts. This year, for the first time, I’ve even put books on my Wish List.

Who am I most looking forward to seeing at the festival? Richard Peck! An American novelist known for his prolific contributions to modern young adult literature, I first discovered him through a poetry collection I read in high school. For his cumulative contribution to young-adult literature he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 1990. To the book signing, I’ll bring the below books, which I’m also eager to read:

  • A Long Way from Chicago (novel)
  • Past Perfect, Present Tense: New and Collected Stories
  • Anonymously Yours (autobiography)

Another author whom I’m also excited to see is Andrew Clements. An American writer of children’s books, his debut novel Frindle won annual book awards determined by the vote of U.S. schoolchildren in about twenty different U.S. states. In June 2015 it was named the Phoenix Award winner. Fittingly, I discovered him as a teacher, and have long wanted to take the time to read his books. To the book signing, I’ll bring the below books, all of which feature main character with creative interests:

  • Frindle
  • The Landry News
  • The School Story
  • Lunch Money
  • Extra Credit
  • Trouble Maker

There are other authors I hope to see too! In addition, I’m eager to attend a session about regional books and a session on the publishing industry. Check back next week for full coverage. 🙂

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