National Humanities Medal
Richard Peck, a Newbery Award winner and best-selling author of young adult books, wrote his first line of fiction the day he quit his junior high school teaching job. The year was 1971 and Peck was thirty-seven years old. Teaching had reacquainted him with the challenges of being young: “As adults, we want young people to start looking for themselves, but they only want to look for leaders.”
He remembers when life was different. “When I was young, we were never more than five minutes from the nearest adult, and that solved most of the problems I write about for a later generation living nearer the edge.” In fact, he remembers the year when everything changed. “I was teaching. It was the second semester of the 1967-68 school year. The change was due to many things: the collapse of family structure, the politicization of schools. . . . But, the authority of the peer group began to replace adult authority, and children quickly learned that they dare not be better achievers than their leaders in the peer group,” he explains. “You only grow up when you’ve walked away from those people. In all my novels, you have to declare your independence from your peers before you can take that first real step toward yourself.”
Peck calls the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. “the only historic event that had ever happened” in the lives of his current readers. While the event briefly registered with them, he doesn’t see much difference in their lives or attitudes six months later. “This was not an attack on their peer group. When it didn’t impact them directly, then that was all. For these reasons--and so history does not repeat itself--there’s a real need for a greater sense of history in our schools.” Speaking and visiting in schools has inspired him to write historical fiction. “I am nudged by the ignorance of the young about the past,” he says. His newest book, Fair Weather, concerns a family that has to leave their farm and everything they know to find their futures at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. “I think the origin of history begins with your own roots,” he adds. With extended families often living miles apart, he makes sure to provide grandparent figures for his readers: “I try to include an elderly person in each of my books. These characters are tough, they’re fun, they’re outrageous, and they have survived. They’re what we wish for in our grandparents.”
Peck was born in Decatur, Illinois, attended the University of Exeter in England, graduated from DePauw University, and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a teacher. His books include the 2001 Newbery Medal winner A Year Down Yonder; The Ghost Belonged to Me, winner of the Friends of American Writers Award; Are You in the House Alone?; winner of an Edgar Allen Poe Award and one of five Peck books that have become television movies; and Close Enough to Touch, an American Library Association honoree.
Thirty-one years and thirty books after beginning his career as a writer, Richard Peck drinks coffee each morning with a table or two of teenagers. Well, he’s not actually at their table. “I can sit right next to them, with my notepad open, and they have no idea . . . “ he confides. “I have to start the day with the rhythm of their voices so I can get rid of my own.”