Obituary: Richard Peck
By Shannon Maughan | May 24, 2018
Author Richard Peck, winner of the Newbery Medal and widely acclaimed for his realistic YA novels, died May 23 at his home in New York City following a long illness. He was 84.
Peck was born April 5, 1934 in Decatur, Ill., a place he described in his autobiography for Something About the Author as “in middle Middle America.” His mother was one of seven siblings, and his maternal grandmother also had many sisters, so as a boy, Peck recalled being “surrounded by elders of all ages,” many of whom had what he considered “fine names.” The stories related by the old men who gathered at his father’s Phillips 66 gas station, and the tales of his grandmother, aunts, and uncles were always swirling around him. “From my father I learned nostalgia as an art form,” Peck wrote in his autobiography. And his father’s experiences growing up in the country also added to the rich storytelling mix.
For his first 18 years, Peck grew up in a house located at the edge of an expansive city park that had a colorful history as a racetrack, county fairgrounds, and an amusement park over the years. He often spoke of the adventures he had while exploring there. Though Peck would eventually live in New York City for most of his life, the distinct sense of place from his boyhood remained with him, and he set most of his novels in the Midwest. In addition to the Peck family’s oral traditions, Peck recalled that his mother had read to him from a very young age, making him eager to tackle school and the larger world beyond. “I wanted to be a writer before I could read,” he said.
At age 16, Peck traveled to New York City for the first time, visiting a distant relative who worked at the United Nations and recalled, “This was the place I’d been homesick for all along.” In his senior year of high school, a particularly tough English teacher challenged Peck to master writing skills—rewriting, meeting deadlines, gathering interesting material—that he carried with him throughout his career. Peck earned a scholarship to DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., planning to be a teacher. He spent his junior year abroad at Exeter University in England before graduating from DePauw in 1956 with a B.A. in English Literature. After graduation, he served two years in the U.S. Army in Stuttgart, Germany, where he worked as a chaplain’s assistant largely doing writing, including sermons, and paperwork during a time of peace between the Korean and Vietnam wars. He received a master’s degree in English in 1959 from Southern Illinois University and continued his graduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He began teaching high school at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., in 1961 and three years later moved to New York City to teach English at Hunter College High School in New York City.
Peck credits his years in the classroom as the spark for many of his book ideas. “It was junior-high students, the puberty people, who taught me how to be a writer,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They taught me... that people don’t read fiction to be educated. They read fiction to be reassured, to be given hope.”
In May 1971, Peck says he turned in his gradebook and pension plan from his teaching job and went home to write a novel. That first work became Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt (Holt, 1972), which addresses teenage pregnancy and was adapted as the 1992 film Gas Food Lodging. He hand-delivered the manuscript to George Nicholson, then editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Just one day later, Peck says that Nicholson called him and said, “You can start your second novel.”
Peck maintained a connection to young readers by visiting schools and libraries and giving classroom writing workshops (something he continued throughout his career). In his autobiography, he says that in the 1970s some junior-high readers advised him to include supernatural elements in his stories. He took the idea to heart and added the character of a “girl-ghost, glamorous rather than ghastly,” to one of his works in progress. Then, in order to balance out “the weird,” he added a human girl named Blossom Culp. The resulting middle-grade novel The Ghost Belonged to Me (Viking, 1975) quickly became a success and was adapted into the film Child of Glass by Walt Disney Productions. A Blossom Culp series grew to include three other novels as well.
According to his sister, Cheryl Peck of Springfield, Ill., Peck spent time earlier in his life traveling the world as a port lecturer on cruise ships, an experience that inspired his novel, Those Summer Girls I Never Met (Delacorte, 1988). He also taught creative writing on a celebrity cruise ship that sailed between New York City and England.
Peck’s young adult novels received wide critical acclaim for addressing such serious topics as rape, suicide, and the death of a loved one. He described his 1998 book A Long Way from Chicago (Dial) as a series of short stories that he shaped into a novel. That book introduces the character of Grandma Dowdel and was about the rhythms of the country town where Peck’s own grandmother lived when he was born. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and was named a 1999 Newbery Honor. A follow-up, A Year Down Yonder (Dial, 2000), also featured Grandma Dowdel and took place in Illinois where Peck’s father was born. A Year Down Yonder won the 2001 Newbery Medal. Peck’s most recent novel, The Best Man (Dial, 2016), is described by his publisher as “a story of small-town life, gay marriage, and everyday heroes.”
Peck went on to write more than 30 novels for young adults as well as several books for adults, including Amanda/Miranda (Viking, 1980), a tale of intrigue and mistaken identity about two women who look alike, inspired by the sinking of the Titanic.
Among Peck’s many other honors, he was invited in the early 2000s to accompany then-Librarian of Congress James Billington to Moscow for the first conference on children’s literature to be held there. And in 2002, he received the National Humanities Medal—the first to be awarded to a children’s author—from President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush additionally invited Peck to be an author-in-residence at three National Book Festivals in Washington, D.C.
Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers was Peck’s editor for nearly 20 years. She shared a favorite anecdote about Peck’s latest work, The Best Man. “When we were in the middle of the editing and he realized he didn’t have the right ending for the book, he came into my office and had these three pages that he wanted to read out loud to me, and they were what became the final short, perfect chapter of the novel,” she said. “He read it to me and I started crying and rushed over to hug him and said yes, yes, and his response was, ‘That’s the best editorial feedback I’ve ever gotten.’
“That was sort of the way our author-editor relationship had developed,” Hornik continued. “More and more it was at the table with our pencils and Richard reading things aloud to me and it was just a very cozy process that I did not have with a lot of authors. It was a luxury that he lived in New York City so I got to spend so much time with him.”
“Another thing that everyone will remark about Richard is that he was a genius listener,” Hornik said. “I saw in an interview that he did some years ago that he called himself a born eavesdropper. He was one of these people that if you had lunch with him—it didn’t matter who you were—whoever had lunch with him would come back from the lunch and say, ‘I just told him my entire life story.’ He was so delightfully interested in other people, he made it very comfortable for people to tell him things that they wouldn’t tell other people. That was a gift of his that he used very well in his fiction writing.”
“He’ll always be Mr. Peck to me,” said literary agent Nancy Gallt, who was one of Peck’s students at Hunter College High School. “He was very inspiring, and funny,” she recalled of her teacher. “He was a very witty man, and sharp. I remember one time he wanted us to compare two poems, asking us who we would rather be, Celia or Rosamund, and I muttered something about ‘I’d rather be named It.’ And he said, ‘Miss Gallt, in your case, that would be entirely appropriate.’ ”
“He also taught short-story writing,” said Gallt, “and I actually wrote a story that was published. We won second place in Ingenue magazine. He also got a prize and so for the rest of the time he was at Hunter I felt kind of like his pet because he always introduced me saying, ‘She’s quite a writer.’ Of course that was the last time I wrote anything.”
“He left the school when I was there,” Gallt continued, “and I didn’t run into him until I had started working at Viking in 1979, when they were publishing his first adult book, Amanda/Miranda. And there he was. I have never called him anything but Mr. Peck.”
According to Peck's sister, a memorial service will be held at the New York Society Library on a date to be announced, and a private military burial will take place at Graceland Cemetery in Decatur, Ill.