The children’s-book world learned yesterday of the passing of Richard Peck on May 23, 2018, after a career that spanned over four decades. I was stirred by his 2011 book, Secrets at Sea, to write my first (and to date only) love letter to an author (or anyone else). The sentiments expressed in it are just as valid today as they were then.
Dear Mr. Peck,
If anyone had suggested to me 10 years ago that I would be writing you a love letter, I would have told them they were crazy. I am not in the habit of writing love letters at all, for the first thing, and for the second, I'm not sure you'd have been the target of my first one.
But here I am, wearing my heart on my sleeve for you.
I have read just about every kids’ book you have written, Mr. Peck, and you have written a lot. According to Contemporary Authors, you have published just about one book a year since 1972, when you published your first novel, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt. Although its subject was heavy—a girl gets pregnant without benefit of either marriage or Roe v. Wade—it demonstrated your hallmark wit. Kirkus wrote that its "teenage characters bend themselves to cheerfully hard-boiled sarcasm."
One of your other characteristic traits, nostalgia, became amply evident by your by your third book, Dreamland Lake. Although I confess I can't remember many of the details of the plot—as I recall, it is a mystery/thriller—your descriptions of the eponymous abandoned amusement park were so evocative and loving, I mourned its faded glory, too. (When I read Three Quarters Dead, published almost 40 years later, that scene in which Kerry and her ghostly friends roller skate in the forgotten ballroom took me straight back to that same delicious feeling of connecting with a past grander than my present.)
Wit and nostalgia combined in your Blossom Culp stories, screamingly funny and occasionally very scary tales of the occult set in World War I–era small-town America. I'm not sure I recognized the satire when I read The Ghost Belonged to Me as a kid, but I know that I am haunted to this day by some of the ghost stories you folded into it.
And so it went. So-called "problem novels" like your first, some mysteries, some ghost stories, historical novels, a foray into science fiction (Lost in Cyberspace! and its sequel)—and then came Grandma Dowdel, the gun-toting, hide-tanning old reprobate whose moral compass points back to a clearer time, when right was right and wrong was wrong.
When Grandma's second appearance, A Year Down Yonder, won the 2001 Newbery Medal, you really could have stopped. You had already won a bunch of awards, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement. (In 1990! Do you think the teen librarians who gave you the Edwards thought you had already peaked?)
I don't think anybody would have blamed you for slowing down, but you didn't. With your feet firmly planted in the past, you wrote about the Chicago World's Fair (Fair Weather), the Civil War (The River Between Us) and World War II (On the Wings of Heroes). Balancing wit and nostalgia, and occasionally threading through a few ghosts, you polished your writing till it shone. Kirkus quoted a line from Fair Weather that shows you at your best: “White electricity had lit the world and erased the stars… it was Greece and Rome again, and every column and curlicue lit by an incandescent bulb.”
Through all of this, though, I've never felt tempted to write you a love letter. Till now.
Because your newest book, Secrets at Sea, is proof positive that you, Mr. Peck, take your craft so seriously that you will continue to go new places in your writing and to take a risk—a risk, mind you, no one has asked you to take. Mice, Mr. Peck? You could have retired years ago, and no one would have said, "Oh, that Richard Peck. If only he'd written about talking mice."
Helena Cranston, the beleaguered, hyper-responsible older sister, and her three younger siblings have just as much gravitas as any of their human forebears. Their determination to accompany their human family, the Upper Cranstons, across the terrifying, wide ocean in pursuit of a suitable match for the homely Olive, is utterly endearing, as well as impossibly funny. One suspects, as our reviewer wrote, that you "must have had a blast writing this."
You are positively gleeful as you capture the mouse-eye view of this Victorian-era comedy of manners: Helena tartly observes that "[o]ur chins would have been on the floor except they already were." You develop Helena’s likable self-importance with masterful precision. And you find le mot juste to describe the way the mice get about by hitchhiking on the humans: "I shall have to infest Camilla and go to the reception on her," little sister Louise declares.
"Infest." The word could not be closer to perfect.
That's what tips me over the edge from just plain admiration to out-and-out adoration.
So, Mr. Peck, it may have taken me a while, but here it is: my very first love letter. And it's to you.
After I wrote this letter, Peck published two more books:The Mouse with the Question-Mark Tail, a companion to Secrets at Sea, and The Best Man, the hilarious, heartfelt, and utterly humane story of decent, clueless sixth-grader Archer and his coming of age against the backdrop of his beloved uncle’s wedding to his male teacher.
Thank you, Mr. Peck. You’ve left a heck of a legacy.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.