Strong characters, timeless truths

Books: Newbery winner reaches back into history for lessons to help today's generation of young readers.

September 30, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,Sun Staff

Richard Peck writes stories about strong, older characters who try to teach youngsters life lessons. You've got to wonder if he isn't a model himself for his protagonists.

The 67-year-old has been writing children's books for nearly half his life. He is a wellspring of historical anecdotes and old-fashioned values. And his year-round school visits are, he says, his purpose in life.

Having recently won the Newbery, the most prestigious award in children's literature, he's secured his place in libraries and schools everywhere -- but something else drives him still.

"A Newbery strengthens a writer's resolve to win more readers, young ones," says Peck. He feels more than ever the urgency of his work in light of this month's terrorist attacks.

"History isn't a folded-up map," he says. "Now we know history is a fireman's child, waiting alone."

As a result of what's happened in New York and Washington, Peck is focusing exclusively on writing historical fiction. By the time the American Library Association gave Peck the Newbery in January, he'd already written 30 books, many of them set in America's yesteryear.

In the award-winning A Year Down Yonder ($16.99, Dial Books for Young Readers), Peck goes back in time to the 1930s Depression era, when city girl Mary Alice is sent by her parents to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois. In the year that follows, adventures with the offbeat matriarch, Grandma Dowdel, make country living unpredictable and exciting for her granddaughter, who grows to love small-town life.

Readers are similarly taken with Peck's story-telling skills. Earlier this month, first lady and former librarian Laura Bush read from the book at the first-ever National Book Festival in Washington.

The chair of the Newbery Medal selection committee is another fan. "It's a very entertaining book," says Caroline Parr, who works at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Va. "It's skillfully done. He knows how to tell a story. There's an amazing amount of character development" for a 130-page book, she says. "There's no word or sentence that's not necessary."

Paula Palatella, a reading teacher at Lime Kiln Middle School in Howard County, chose the book as her read-aloud story. "I'm reading it to seventh graders and they're begging me to stop class early so we can read more," she says. "It used to be just 10 minutes, now it's the last 15 minutes and they want to boost it up even more."

Though earning a Newbery virtually guarantees perpetual printings and constant demand, Palatella says, "I would've gotten it regardless," and she's planning to order more copies based on the success of the book in her classes.

Women who ruled

In many of Peck's books, the elder character is the axis around which the rest of the story rotates. "The young are more desperate than ever for strong leadership, which Grandma Dowdel clearly represents," says Peck. This larger-than-life woman exposes long-buried secrets, takes in strays, plays matchmaker, makes cherry tarts and forcefully wields a double-barreled shotgun.

"Grandma Dowdel is a force of nature, and try as you might to outsmart her or second-guess her, you can't. That's very appealing in that it adds an element of mystery," says Parr. She says Peck "is concerned that teen-agers live in a world of their own. This book reassures them that there are adults there to help them."

Peck's own family provided some inspiration for Grandma Dowdel. "She's a combination of all of my great-aunts, big women in Lane Bryant dresses who ruled the world. I was wowed by them, and I can still hear their voices."

In his book, it's very clear who's in charge. "In 1937, adults stilled ruled the world," says Peck.

At that time, Peck was a toddler. Now he's living on the upper East Side in New York, but he's still a throwback to simpler days, such as those he enjoyed as a child in his hometown of Decatur, Ill. During his Newbery acceptance speech in June, he recalled hearing his first stories from his mother. Then later, as he listened to his grandmother and her sisters tell their tales, he picked up a love for reading.

He scolds parents who don't read to their children early on. "I can certainly tell which child had been read to, and those who had not," says Peck. He says those who have can "enter the alternative universe of fiction, of storytelling, of metaphor." He says he can spot less fortunate students by their writing - "the dull bureaucratic monotony, the awkwardness of the child who does not read."

Peck, who is single and doesn't have children, believes parents should exert stronger control over their kids to make sure they are on the right track. "The permissively reared child is not good at history and geography because those subjects suggest he's not the center of his world," he says.

Another time and place

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