I first "met" Richard Peck when I got a part-time job at the library as a circulation clerk. This meant that I checked out patrons' books, and also that I got to shelve the cartload of returned items, everything from vinyl records and puppets to puzzles and actual books. It's a great library.
And I had a great supervisor who never said anything even though I was the slowest re-shelver in the place. Mostly because I kept sampling the wares, and then finding additional interesting items on the shelves as I returned the books. While wandering the stacks like that, I ran into the works of a Young Adult writer named Richard Peck. I had never heard of him until I found him in that library, and once I did, I was hooked. How could I not be when he had titles like Ghosts I Have Been, The Ghost Belonged to Me, and Voices After Midnight? I read everything by him that the library had to offer.
Fast forward many years, and I had gotten a book published and joined The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. One year, the Society offered a two-day workshop down in Champaign-Urbana that included critiquing by peer group, and then a chance to read to and be advised by none other than Richard Peck. There was no way I was going to miss out on that so I registered and got myself downstate to finally meet the man.
And he was wonderful: funny, charming, and with a head full of amazing wisdom. I managed to make it through the critique group without too much damage (me, who never joins writers' groups) but I was basically quaking in my shoes at the idea of reading my work in front of the entire gathering as well as Mr. Peck. Talk about nervous. Read my stuff? In front of my hero? But I had signed up, so there was no getting around it.
I sat in the back of the room so that I wouldn't be the first to read. I was kind of hoping to either be the last, or that an earthquake would strike at an opportune moment and the floor would swallow me whole before I needed to open my mouth in front of him. But finally, after listening to my colleagues read their excerpts and being totally blow away by the collective talent in that room, it was my turn.
I started reading and although I was paying enough attention to the sheets of paper I held in my shaking hands, I was aware that Mr. Peck had gotten up from the desk at the front of the room and had walked around to sit down directly across from me. Trying not to freak out, I finished what I was reading, looked up at him, and he smiled. And then he said, "Well. You're very good, aren't you?" And that was as jarring to me as any earthquake could have been. To this day, I replay that comment in my head, in his voice, with that smile on his face. One of the best moments of my entire life, let alone my writing life.
We didn't have a chance to speak again; I needed to leave the workshop a little early, and he was busy with everyone who also wanted to speak to him. But we did exchange letters, and I have his in my treasured author-letters file. Physical proof that I had actually connected with my hero.
He shared two snippets of his wisdom with us at that workshop. Before we broke into our small critique groups, he said "Remember: writing is not done by committee." (Perhaps he didn't do writers' groups either--I never thought to ask him.) And then before we read our work aloud to him and to everyone else, he said "If you want to write for children, always remember. Childhood is a jungle, not a garden." This was a man who, no matter how many years he collected, remained very much connected to the child in his heart.
Later in his career, he switched from YA Supernatural to Middle Grade, and was awarded The Newberry for his book A Year Down Yonder. Previously, he had already received the Edgar, the Margaret Edwards Award, and the National Humanities Medal.
Richard Peck hailed from my home state of Illinois and became one of the biggest lights in young people's fiction. I'm so very grateful that I had a chance to meet him.