When I was about 12, Richard Peck scared the daylights out of me. His novel Are You In the House Alone?, the haunting story of a high-school girl who is raped by a boy she knows, a boy no one can believe would commit such a crime because he comes from a socially prominent family, gave me chills. “Good!” the author said during a recent interview. “It was supposed to!” Are You in the House Alone? is just one of the many books Peck has written about the hard lessons we learn while growing up. The winner of numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal, Peck has produced more than 30 novels for young adults, as well as works of adult fiction, an autobiography and poetry. His new book, The River Between Us, is a fascinating examination of the way a family in a small Illinois town is affected by the dawning of the Civil War and by two mysterious women who arrive on a steamboat from New Orleans.
Peck says that reading about the mixed-race women of the time, known then as “quadroons,” inspired him to write the book. “[I learned that] quadroon women fled [their homes in the South] because if the South lost the war, they would lose all their status,” he says. “Those who were pale enough went north and vanished, those who looked Spanish went to California, and those who didn’t went to Mexico. I wondered what happened to them and I hugged myself with glee, thinking of all those northern families who said, 'My grandmother came from New Orleans’ without knowing why.” After doing two years of research for the novel, he set the story in a small town in his home state of Illinois. “That's a way real life can assist you,” he explains. “It gives you sets.”
Peck taught school for 20 years before quitting to become an author. He’s determined to show young readers that, in order to find themselves, they must first separate themselves from their peers. “You can’t grow up in a group,” he says. “I grew up in a time in the 1950s where you could be a part-time conformist and get away with it. I was a frat boy and committed to it, yet I could get on the QE2 and study in England for a year. I’m not sure the peer group would allow that kind of mobility now.” Peck says he can’t even imagine writing without having been a teacher first. The denizens of junior high “kicked the living autobiography out of me they don’t want to hear it,” he explains. This drove him to figure out what young readers would accept and to write it for them.
“My goal with my next book is to write something that will cause the teacher to just break down and weep with laughter,” he says. “Comedy is a higher calling than realism or tragedy. It’s uphill work because kids don't always get it the young are not used to laughing unless it is at one another.” Peck asserts that writing for young adults is in fact more difficult than writing adult fiction, pointing out that “YA books are better crafted, because they can’t use pornography to hide weak writing. It’s harder to do. Plus, if you can’t say it in 200 pages, you probably shouldn’t say it at all.” Right now, Peck is nearly to the midpoint of his next book, The Teacher’s Funeral. Memories of visiting his grandparents on their farm, combined with his father’s memories of his own childhood, are informing his present work. “[The farm] was a whole different world of outdoor privies and wells, of horses and buggies and coal-oil lamps. I was lost in the romance and didn't notice how hard farm life was.” Now, he says, thoughts of these times are “fueling the end of my career. I’m going back to grandma’s house for the summer.”
Linda Castellitto is the creative director of BookSense.