Richard Peck: A Teacher Finds His Audience

Richard Peck grew up in the heartland town of Decatur, Illinois. His childhood and young adulthood were filled with grown-ups of different generations. If a problem arose, there was always someone around to ask for advice.

When 16, he took a trip to the Empire State that changed the way he felt about Illinois. He realized that New York City was the place he wanted to be. At 20, he sailed for England to spend a year at the University of Exeter. The American students were popular because they were so out-going and made friends easily. The rest of his college days were spent in Illinois, but that one year abroad opened up his eyes to the world's possibilities.

After World War II and until 1973, every capable man was required to serve two-year stints in the armed services. Richard Peck did his time after college, mostly in Germany. There was no war going on, but the army still had a million men living together under tight rules.

After leaving the Army, Richard got his teaching credentials and taught school in Chicago. He chose to be a teacher because growing up, that was the profession that most inspired him.

His years in the classroom both enlightened and disturbed him. He saw a lot of young people who were not given any direction or guidance at home but who were expected to go to college, whether or not they were interested in it, just because it was the socially correct thing to do.

While he has often written about kids facing difficult times in the modern world with no real parental support, some of his most enjoyable and successful writing has come from stories that show an older and gentler style of coming-of-age, one that he remembers from his own childhood.

"This America is one of self-reliance and coming from behind; of characters who learn to accept the consequences of their actions; of happy endings worked for and almost achieved; of being young in an old world and finding your way in it.; of a nation of people hasty and forgetful but full still of hope; of limitless distances and new beginnings and starting over; of dreams like mountaintops, and rivers that run to the sea. We owe our young this record of our dreams, and if you and I do not put that record into their hands, who will?"*

*Quoted in the article Richard (Wayne) Peck, Contemporary Authors Online, a part of the Literature Resource Center database.

Mischief at the Back End of Beyond

A Long Way From Chicago finds Mary Alice and Joey sent to visit their Grandma Dowdel in a small town each and every summer in the early 1930s. What might have been a boring time turns out to be terrific fun because of their grandma's ways of making sure justice is done. Plus, the oddest things can happen in a little town: the nutty elopement of the town wallflower, the holier-than-thou town council caught with their dignity down, and the dead rising up in Grandma's parlor. A Long Way Frm Chicago has humor and heart aplenty to make it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

A Long Way From Chicago

This family story continues and stretches out when 15-year-old Mary Alice comes to spend A Year Down Yonder with Grandma. Times may be tough in the Great Depression, but Grandma is tougher. She's larger than life in so many ways, engineering revenge on the town bullies, both in the schoolroom and in the mayor's office. A Year Down Yonder won the Newbery Medal in 2001.

A Year Down Yonder

Return to the neighborhood with A Season of Gifts, a companion volume to A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. A boy and his family discover that their eccentric and amazing neighbor has a lot to share with them.

A Season of Gifts

Fresh Air in the Windy City

Every day, Rosie, Lottie, and Buster Beckett help to make butter, gather the eggs, and keep the family farm running. There's no electricity or running water, and most days they don't wear shoes. It's a hard life, but it's one they live without complaining. When a letter arrives from their wealthy Aunt Euterpe inviting them to come to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, their day-to-day routine is turned upside-down. Nothing in their lives will ever be the same after their trip in Fair Weather. If only poor Aunt Euterpe and upper-crust Chicago can survive the Becketts' down-home enthusiasm!

Fair Weather

Mouse on the Town

In addition to his books set in Illinois, Richard Peck has two novels for young people featuring a fantastical mouse society that exists parallel to our own - or, more specifically, our own in the 1800s. In Secrets at Sea, it's 1887, and the human Cranston family heads from New York to London, hoping to marry off their daughter to someone from a noble family. They don't know that a mouse family is making the journey with them and will play a major part in their expedition. 

Secrets at Sea

In The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, Mouse Minor, an orphan who attends a private school in the Royal Mews (stables), runs away when he is seen by humans in his school uniform. Set at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, this charming, old-fashioned story is a companion to Secrets at Sea.

An Unwanted Gift

Thirteen-year-old Alexander belongs to a very normal family. They live in a nice house located in a good part of town. He is not sure what to make of Blossom Culp. This girl from a broken down neighborhood has dark, sharp eyes and legs so skinny in her black stockings that she's been nicknamed "The Arachnid. He'd like to ignore Blossom, but she has a secret to tell him. It's a matter of a past life and deaths that may come if Alexander doesn't pay close attention to what she says, skinny legs or not. The Ghost Belonged to Me is the first psychic mystery to feature the unforgettable Blossom.

The Ghost Belonged To Me

Books for Young Adults

Richard Peck has written several books for young adults, including a collection of his short stories -Past Perfect Present Tense. Another book for young adults, The River Between Us, has suspense and romance at the start of the Civil War. Two passengers - one grand lady and her servant, possibly her slave - disembark from a steamboat into the free state of Illinois, bound for Tilly Pruitt's boarding house.

The River Between Us

More about the Author on the Web

Lessons Learned: Former Teacher Richard Peck Educates and Entertains with "River"
Look here for a bit of the author's life story and comments on his book, The River between Us.

Web English Teacher: Richard Peck
Links to lesson plans, discussion questions and summaries for several of his books.