The world of children’s literature received sad news this summer. Newbery award-winning author Richard Peck died after a bout with bladder cancer.
Peck, who wrote primarily for readers in grade 4 through 7, read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in fourth grade himself, at the request of his teacher, who said: “try this…” From that time forward Peck believed: “I will never be Mark Twain, but will die trying.” Indeed, Peck stood on the shoulders of Twain’s literary genius, reaching a similar standard of excellence, writing more than 40 books. Peck’s novels for middle grade students won several modern-day accolades, as follows:
Are You In the House Alone (1976): Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery Fiction
A Long Way From Chicago (1998): Newbery Honor and National Book Award Finalist
A Year Down Yonder (2000): Newbery Award
The River Between Us (2004): Scott O’ Dell Award for Historical Fiction
Additionally, for his contributions, Peck received the Margaret Edwards Award (1990), given by the American Library Association to an author delivering the “most significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature,” as well as the National Humanities Medal (2001), awarded to “the individual who has best deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.”
Mr. Peck told an audience at the 2013 National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress, that he was a writer because he never had a teacher who said: “Write what you know.” He joked: “If I’d been limited to writing what I know, I would have produced one unpublishable haiku.” To remedy that situation, Peck read National Geographic Magazine constantly, and immersed himself in such epics as Gone With the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage. In order to write his award-winning literature, Peck noted, he “had to do a lot of research and interview a lot of people and go to a lot of places.”
Peck believed children need to learn history via vivid storytelling. According to Peck, students should be told a “thousand stories” by not only “writers in our empty rooms trying to make our brains bleed directly onto a blank page,” but also by grandparents, parents, teachers, librarians, and “adults with our books in our hands, with pages turning to our readers’ futures.”
To honor this fine literary statesman, let us hold those books in our hands, without fail!