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Profile of 2001 Newbery Medal winner Richard Peck

by Marc Talbert

The Call.

There are many great stories about Newbery Award–winning authors receiving The Call. The Call can come at any time on that fateful day during the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting. It is almost always a surprise. It is almost always received with an awkward and unrehearsed combination of disbelief and joy. It is always life-changing.

This year The Call came early on Monday, January 15th, but not too early. I didn’t answer — Richard Peck did. Instead, I got The Message, left on my answering service at 11:27 A.M., which was nearly one-thirty New York City time. I picked it up a few hours later in my truck, driving my two children home from ice-skating at Santa Fe’s new indoor rink. I heard a rather breathless but most familiar voice:

Hello, Talberts. This is Uncle Richard calling. This is the first time I’ve been able to get to the phone this morning. And I just wanted to wish you a happy Martin Luther King Day and…to tell you I’ve won the Newbery. I’ll talk to you later. Bye.

You may find this hard to believe, but we were all listening to the audio version of A Year Down Yonder as I was collecting my telephone messages. (“This is better than Harry Potter,” my oldest daughter, Molly, had declared a couple weeks earlier while we were listening to A Long Way from Chicago — a Christmas gift from Richard. She’s ten. In case you’re visiting from Pluto or work for the Horn Book, this is a compliment not said lightly.)

I had to pull over to the side of the road because my eyes filled with tears. My girls were mortified. Guys who drive big red trucks do not pull over to the side of the road because they are crying for joy.

“Uncle Richard won the Newbery!” I managed to say. “For this book!” I pointed to the tape player, which obviously was not a book. This didn’t do too much to reassure my girls. Neither did the words emanating from the tape player. From the speakers came narrator Lois Smith’s voice, unabated: “Maxine was screaming for her life, and that snake was all over her. It looped around her shoulders…” Great as this image was (and now great in a Newbery kind of way), I turned the tape off.

In the stunned quiet of the truck, I listened to The Message again, to make sure I’d heard Uncle Richard correctly. I had.

The Message touched me nearly as deeply as if it had been The Call itself. And The Message was quintessential Richard Peck — full of his wry sense of humor, his sense of timing, his priorities, and his relationship with me and my family.

Richard has the most sophisticated sense of humor of anyone I know — at once disarming but instructive, at once humbling and ennobling, the punch line often delivered after a sharp intake of breath, the timing almost always flawless. It isn’t acting. He thinks that way, in grammatical sentences that also have a point: sentences with beginnings, middles, and (almost physical) punch lines at their ends. Very much like his novels.

I believe Richard is naturally prone to thinking and speaking and writing clearly. He honed this way of thinking for many years by writing letters and speeches and novels on a manual typewriter, and now (reluctantly) on an electric.

Most conversation today is like fishing with a bobber, throwing the line into still water, sitting back, waiting for the fish (or ideas) to come. Richard’s conversation is more like flyfishing. I don’t know if he’s ever fished at all, but I’m sure he would prefer running water — it is lively and it is going someplace specific. He would know where the fish are and where to lay the line so as to hook the exact fish (or idea) he wants. Aconversation with Richard is always intelligent, purposeful, and fun. There is always something wiggling at the other end of his thoughts.

He writes the same way he speaks. And he hooks not only ideas but readers, young and old. Thank goodness, Richard’s philosophy is one of catch-and-release. Readers aren’t trophies to Richard, but living things that learn from being caught. They must then be set free to put this learning to good use, according to their own strengths and limitations.

The Message also demonstrated Richard’s priorities. Much as I wanted it to be true, I could hardly believe we were the first people he’d called with The News. Yes, he dedicated A Year Down Yonder to me and my family. But when I telephoned him later, to tell him of the joy (and immortality) he’d brought to our lives, I was relieved to learn that indeed he’d called his mother first. Family should come first, although he is very much a member of our family.

To us he is Uncle Richard, not by blood, but by choice — my daughters’ choice. What else could they call him? When he visits, they love being with him. To be on the receiving end of Richard’s incisive gaze is to be understood and respected. It is a rare adult who can make children feel comfortable and at the same time not compromise the adult-child relationship. Richard is such a person. He listens, he respects, he cares, he understands, and he doesn’t always agree. In fact, he often  challenges. But like most children, my daughters like to be engaged, not pandered to. Richard engages. Totally. He is special that way. That is one reason why he is our Uncle Richard.

Another reason is that Richard Peck is my oldest and dearest author friend.

It is embarrassing for me to admit that I was not familiar with Richard’s young adult novels when I began writing novels of my own. Children’s literature was a big new world for me, and I had huge gaps in my reading (and still do). But, after I had written two middle-grade novels, a neighbor who had met him a year before told me that Richard Peck would be a good person to call for publishing advice. I immediately read Representing Super Doll, and was moved by everything but its title. This Richard Peck guy was obviously a master storyteller, a writer of substance, and, by the author blurb, had been prominent in the kid-lit business for a very long time — one of the founders of young adult literature. With my heart in my throat, I gathered enough courage one evening to call him. As I feared, he had no idea who I was, had read neither of my books, but he was the perfect gentleman. He listened to me, responded with courtesy, and even seemed genuinely pleased that I was sending him my first novel by way of thanks.

From that phone call has blossomed one of the most satisfying friendships of my life. I made a point of seeing him when I visited New York a couple of months later. By this time I’d read all of his novels, including two of his adult novels, and was impatient for him to write more. From the first, I was completely comfortable in his company. I was thoroughly charmed and flattered to be considered by him a colleague, and to be taken so seriously by him. He made it seem as if I were doing him the favor of visiting.

He returned the favor a few months later by visiting my wife and me in Santa Fe. As a born-again New Mexican, I took great pride in showing him my favorite places around town. Much to my chagrin, he showed me several places in Santa Fe that were new to me. That is so typical of Richard — his ability to reveal to people surprising new things about the places in which they live, and his ability to be comfortable wherever he is. Richard is a joy to have around the house. He’s the kind of guest who, when asked if he likes pork chops, says, “Love ’em!” before the question has been fully asked. He loves to meet our friends and our family. He loves reading aloud to our kids. Clearly, he loves plain, old-fashioned visiting.

And he’s a master at getting people to talk about themselves. I often feel like a blabbermouth after visiting with him, but I am always surprised and pleased by what I have learned about myself. Psychotherapy should be so much fun.

Good as he is at getting others to spill their guts, Richard is the kind of person who is fastidious about what he allows others to know about himself. He knows, respects, and honors personal boundaries in ways that are refreshing for someone who grew up in the sixties and seventies, when every little personal thing was fair game. But there are times when he allows glimpses of himself, and I am always honored when he lets me see the tired Richard, or the preoccupied Richard, or the unsure Richard, or the completely unguarded and surprised Richard.

I remember the time I surprised him with the news that he had taught a sister-in-law of mine in a wealthy Chicago suburban school. As it turned out, this surprise was not especially happy. He couldn’t hide the fact that he had not enjoyed teaching my sister-in-law or her fellow students. Independently, she told me that she had not enjoyed having him for a teacher. But of course not. He actually expected his students to think and to defend their opinions. He set standards in an age when the highest standard in teaching was helping students feel good about themselves. He must have been a teacher to be reckoned with, and these students suddenly found they were not in command in his classroom.

Richard is so often in command of himself and his audience that it was a surprise to me to discover that he suffers from the same insecurities we all do. I remember sharing with him part of the rough draft of my first nonfiction book, a book about girls who live and work on ranches. He liked it well enough, except that he found the introduction rather stiff. And then, sitting at our dining room table, he read me a draft of his short story “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night above Ground,” which was to be included in the short story collection Twelve Shots: Outstanding Stories about Guns, edited by Harry Mazer.

Before Richard was finished, even the cat was moved enough to look up from his napping. “Do you like it?” Richard asked. His fingers were nervous. It was not a question begging for compliments. He really wanted to know, especially if I didn’t like it.

But of course I did. I loved every word of it and told him so, hoping he wouldn’t think I was just being kind. The story was everything we have come to expect from Richard: focused, funny, surprising, profound, real, and wise.

He allowed as how he was thinking of continuing the story of Grandma Dowdel, but he didn’t know if he could do it. Typical Richard. Of course from that story came A Long Way from Chicago.

When he sent me a copy of the book, I read it and called him (after I’d sat for a moment, to allow myself to reenter the comparatively black-and-white world around me) and told him that, as much as I loved everything he’d ever written, this was his best book.

Others must have agreed. A Long Way from Chicago went on to become a National Book Award finalist and a Newbery Honor Book.

Success such as that cannot go unpunished. He was asked by his publisher to write a sequel and, with trepidation, agreed to do so. He told me that he feared the next book wouldn’t be taken seriously because it was a sequel and, as anybody knows, sequels are usually mere echoes of the original, fainter and lacking distinction. He sent me one of the first copies that his publisher delivered to his apartment.

I read it and was astonished. Truly, this was the best book Richard Peck had ever written — which is saying a mouthful. Further, it was no more a sequel to A Long Way from Chicago than the New Testament is a sequel to the Old Testament. Chronologically, it takes place after A Long Way from Chicago. It shares the same setting and some of the same characters. But, emotionally, it is a prequel, giving us, through Mary Alice, a window into the kind of girl Grandma Dowdel must have been so many years before, shaped differently by different times and places but emotionally parallel to this budding young woman from Chicago. Could it be that A Long Way from Chicago is an echo of A Year Down
Yonder? Perhaps.

I’m sure that some readers were disappointed that this wasn’t another book about the magnificent Grandma Dowdel so much as it was Mary Alice’s book. That Mary Alice went from thinking of her grandmother as an oddity and a hick to seeing her as a complex woman, at once tough and vulnerable, and with whom she shares many strong personality traits and values, was a marvelous achievement on Richard’s part. I’m glad the Newbery committee agreed.

As we rush to canonize Richard, let me relate something I observed several years before any of this happened. I had called him to announce plans to visit New York City to meet a new publisher and editor and to see a couple of friends, including him. I was flattered when he told me that I shouldn’t stay at a hotel, but at his apartment.

I slept in his office. The next morning, I sat at his desk, imagining what it would be like to be Richard. Unlike my desk, his was immaculate. Looking at it made me wonder what it would be like to have a brain that wasn’t as cluttered as mine. Envy followed wonder. And then I looked straight up to the window that dominates the north side of his office. The season was fall, and most of the leaves had turned brown and fallen off in that brisk way of things that live in New York. A band of light had fallen across a squat, Greek revival building framed by a couple of nondescript buildings — all of them centered in the window. And in that light I could read the inscription that was carved above the columns supporting its limestone facade: “To Prepare Unto the Lord Perfect People.”

I asked Richard about that building later in the day, when the light had moved on and the inscription was no longer readable from his office. It had been a school, he said. I asked him about the inscription. He claimed not to have noticed it before.

But how extraordinarily perfect. I’m sure that Richard spends as much time as any of us gazing out office windows. I find it comforting to think that his gaze might often linger on a phrase that describes what I believe motivates him in so much of his writing. It is amusing to imagine that his laser-sharp gaze may have carved those words in the stone where no inscription existed before.

Such an inscription may seem old-fashioned, even corny. But Richard doesn’t shy away from old-fashioned ideas or values when they express a lasting truth. That is another thing I admire about Richard. Through his stories, he brings nobility into the lives of his readers. Through his stories, he makes the old new and the new old. And through his stories, he has touched each of us in profound, beautiful, and timeless ways, helping make the world a more perfect place.

Thank you, Uncle Richard, for the gifts of your stories and for your generous friendship.


Marc Talbert is the author of thirteen novels for young readers, including Heart of a Jaguar, A Sunburned Prayer, Star of Luis, The Trap, and Small Change. His novel The Best in the World recently appeared in newspapers across the country through Breakfast Serials™.

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