Beginning his career as a high school English teacher, and then moving to the junior high school level, after a decade Peck was disillusioned: he said that teaching had devolved into something “that looked weirdly like psychiatric social work,” and decided he could reach more kids that age, and teach them more, by being a writer. “I think your view of the world goes on — for the rest of your life — as the world you saw as you emerged into it as an adult,” he explained later. He turned to writing young adult novels full time. “If you wanted to know Richard Peck, you could find him in his novels and in his messages about growing up responsibly,” said his sister, Cheryl Peck.
“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer,” Peck once said, and he became a real reader when his fourth-grade teacher gave him a book by Mark Twain. “Mrs. Cole stepped up behind me with a book in her hand,” he said. “She handed it to me and said, ‘Here, you might try this.’ Notice the verb, ‘try.’ Not ‘like.’ Adults weren’t concerned with what children liked. But ‘try’ was a kind of challenge.” He was enraptured by the book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “I could never be Mark Twain,” he said, “but I will die trying.” But, more importantly, he pointed out that “I’m a writer because I never had a teacher who said, ‘Write what you know.’ If I’d been limited to writing what I know, I would have produced one unpublishable haiku. Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit. J.K. Rowling did not attend Hogwarts School.” Peck didn’t shy away from what kids wanted to understand; “I learned that there is no such thing as a ‘grade reading level’; a young person’s ‘reading level’ and attention span will rise and fall according to his degree of interest.” So he tackled subjects of importance to kids on the cusp of adulthood: unwanted pregnancy, suicide, even same-sex marriage, in his 40-plus books. He won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery fiction, the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for “a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature,” the National Council of Teachers of English/ALAN Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Peck died May 23 from kidney failure, at 84.