I read my first Richard Peck novel, the one reviewed below, in 2000, and I have been a fan of his work ever since. This novel A Long Way from Chicago: A Novel in Stories is the first book in a trilogy featuring, among others, the unstoppable Mrs. Dowel. It is the kind of story both young readers and adults will enjoy. Indeed, many of Richard Peck's mid-grade and young adult novels will appeal to adults because their themes are so universal and so pertinent for people of all ages and backgrounds. I strongly urge to get a copy of this book. You will love it. Richard Peck was an incredibly gifted author whose writings made me both laugh out loud and weep a little weep. He wrote books in several genres for young readers, and he also wrote adult fiction and nonfiction.
Richard Peck 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. “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. The acclaimed author of 35 novels for children and young adults, he won the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, a Newbery Honor for A Long Way from Chicago, the Scott O’Dell Award for The River Between Us, the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Are You in the House Alone?, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for The Best Man, and the Christopher Medal for The Teacher’s Funeral. He was the first children’s author ever to have been awarded a National Humanities Medal, and was twice a National Book Award Finalist.
The world lost a truly great writer when Richard Peck left us in 2018 at the age of 84
For ages 12 and up
Penguin, 2000, 978-0141303529
Joey and his sister Alice have always known that their Grandma Dowdel is a tough old lady, but it is only when they start spending time with her in the summers that they get a real sense of how tough she is. The country is in the grip of the Great Depression and times are hard. Grandma Dowdel, like so many other people, has to adapt to the changing circumstances. Some things don’t change though; Grandma Dowel pretty much always gets what she wants – in the end. Joey and Alice are shocked to discover that there is very little that Grandma Dowdel won’t do to get her own way. She will intimidate, blackmail, bully, lie, and steal, among other things, and she will do it all with great aplomb and not the slightest bit of regret.
They also discover that their large overall-wearing grandmother has soft spots. She will not tolerate bullies, she does her best to help those in trouble, and in her own crusty way she takes care of the people she cares about.
In the nine summers that Joey and Alice go to visit their grandmother, they see their first dead body, they watch their grandma fire a shotgun, they see the sheriff in his underwear, they impersonate a ghost, they feed hungry hobos, and they 'borrow' a boat so that they can poach fish.
Laugh out loud scenes and larger-than-life characters make this book a joy to read. At the same time, it is thought-provoking, and it paints a portrait of a very hard time in America’s history. Grandma Dowdel is a force of nature whom the reader will be compelled to admire. Surely we would all be better off if we had a Grandma Dowdel in our lives.