Thursday 25 March 2010

Richard Peck on the beating heart of what we do as children's writers

If you cannot find yourself on the page very early in life, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.

When Richard Peck said that, I would have applauded had I not been typing as fast I could to get down his every meaty line.

In all his books, he said, he always has an older character."I always put old people in, just in case there are no old people in my readers's lives. Just in case they no longer have to write thank you notes to their grandparents. A book, like a school, should provide what is no longer available in life ."

Mr. Peck was speaking at the 2010 SCBWI Symposium in Bologna. He is now 76 and it is nine years since he won the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, a book that few publishers would embrace these days because not only is it of a very specific regional bent, its lead character is a big fat and old lady, plus there is not a single handsome bloodsucker in sight.

His theme had somewhat evolved from the announced  topic "The Right Books Right Now" to what drives or should drive us children's authors to write for "a generation who knows no earlier century, who knows no time but now, and who recognizes no government but the peer group."

Says Mr. Peck: "We write for a generation we never were because ours is a higher calling: a deeper craft", trying to woo "a readership whose facebooks glow hot into the night long after their parents are fast asleep".

He listed what was required of us in breathtaking language:
  • "We have crossed  terrible minefields of our own making ... the opening mine of the opening line. Are we writing with invitational simplicity without a word to slow it down?" He cites as an example of an opening with "invitational simplicity" a line from EB White's Charlotte's Web: "Where is Papa going with that axe?" 
  • "Like no other authors we can doom ourselves before we start, fall at the first fence ... when the thickets of our dark woods see the adverbs coiling to strike. Boys don’t use adverbs. Boys live in an unqualified word." He quotes Mark Twain: "If you see an adverb, shoot it.
  • "We have to write as the readers. We cannot write as ourselves ...We must write nearer to our readers and farther from ourselves than any other kind of writer.". 
  • "Character development is the beating heart of what we do." 
  • "Dialogue is best written standing up. It improves the pace ... I write with my feet. That way I can act out my scenes when I get to the kids. If you are unwilling to get up and act out any of your scenes, you will be reduced to writing for adults 
  • "The hard truth that a story must entertain first before it can do anything else ... and what entertains you and me doesn’t necessarily entertain the young."  
  • "A story for the young must move in a straight line with hope at the end."  
  • "The hook upon all our stories hang is the universal truth that actions have consequences. If actions have no consequences, plots fall apart. If actions have no consequences, it isn't a book ... it's a remedial programme. But being responsible for the consequences of your actions is the least interesting truth to the young ... and so we have to be canny and devious."

It was not so much a keynote as a call to arms

And our responsibility is great - because what we create on the page is like a magic mirror that helps our young reader see the human being they can become.

Researching Richard Peck on the internet, I was delighted to discover he had written an autobiography Anonymously Yours. In it, he posted the following, a kind of Reader's Creed:
I read because one life isn't enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody; 

I read because the words that build the story become mine, to build my life;

I read not for happy endings but for new beginnings; I'm just beginning myself, and I wouldn't mind a map;

I read because I have friends who don't, and young though they are, they're beginning to run out of material;

I read because every journey begins at the library, and it's time for me to start packing;

I read because one of these days I'm going to get out of this town, and I'm going to go everywhere and meet everybody, and I want to be ready.
This is why we write for children.


  1. this is the sort of inspirational stuff that gives me goosebumps. Brilliant post, Candy, thanks for sharing!

  2. A beautiful posting with added condensed wisdom. Thanks Candy.

  3. Some lovely thoughts, but I have to take exception with the idea that we cannot write as ourselves - because he totally contradicts that with the idea of putting an older character in every story! I think the joy of children's writing is meeting the reader halfway - sharing our wisdom and their enthusiasm for the world.


  4. Wow indeed! This is all quite brilliant.

    To arms!

  5. I shall print this out, stick it on my study wall and remind myself to read it at least once a day

  6. An amazing blog, Candy. I feel like standing up and saluting.

    Mariam V

  7. Great post, well worth reading at the start of many a doubting day. Thanks, Candy.

  8. Brilliant post. What a great guy! Thanks for putting this up. I particularly loved this:
    "If you are unwilling to get up and act out any of your scenes, you will be reduced to writing for adults."

  9. thanks all. Nick, I think what he means by we must write as our readers and not as ourselves is that we must take a young person's point of view. there is nothing that jars more in a teen/children's novel than an adult comment slipping into the voices of younger characters.

    his comment about putting older people into a story to give readers the experience of such an encounter has actually inspired me to shift something in my current work in progress. i just started reworking it and it has made all the difference. exciting.

  10. Comments from Facebook:

    Tricia Heighway Brilliant. I like the bit about writing dialogue standing up. I have been known to stand up and act out little bits of my dialogue. Thought that was just me :)

    A great read, Candy. He sounds wonderful.

    Candy i really was torn betwen the desire to applaud and the desire to write every single word down.

    Tricia Heighway I bet. And I expect you wish you could go back in time and watch and listen unimpeded by the keyboard. Good for you capturing it all for posterity, though, and sharing it with people.

    Candy The delivery was also something to behold. He's very technophobic. We asked him if he could email us a copy of his speech and he said, "'Give me your address and I'll come to your house and tell it to you."

    Tricia Heighway Ha ha. Brilliant. He sounds a real character :)

    Bex Hill Wonderful. Thanks for sharing Candy.

    Odette Elliott That is so full of insight. Really wonderful. It's so good that you shared this with us. (If he turns up at your house, can I come too?!)

    Bryony Pearce There were tears in my eyes reading that post. But I'd better go and start shooting adverbs!

  11. Ok, well I couldn't agree more about writing from the character (and therefore the reader's) perspective. And I agree that we have to lose our vanity when writing for children - the story is king!


  12. Very good post Candy - thank you. Interesting that he was a teacher before he was a writer. I feel very similarly about writing, and reading - but I thought perhaps that was my teaching side coming out - but from your comments it seems to strike a chord amongst lots of writers. I love the comment about a story moving in a straight line with hope at the end. And the part about older characters, I have 2 main protags who are the reader's age, but all my other characters are of varying ages, and I have given a flavour - through the protags eyes of their problems too - it's important for children to realise that adults (of any age) are just like them in so many ways, only with a few more years under our belts. ;) Tricia

  13. This is all fabulous - and inspiring - but am I the only one to find my good intentions as a writer watered down and homegenised by editors/publishers? It may sound arrogant but I honestly think I could fulfil my responsibility a bit more if editors bloomin' well left me alone.

  14. I love reading. I love writing. I love painting. And I love this.

  15. Thanks for typing like mad to capture some of Mr Peck's wisdom and bring it back to share with us. Wish I could have been there to hear him speak.

  16. Thanks so much for this, Candy. You do us all a great service by getting it all down.

    And he can come to mine any time and give me the speech.

    One to reread...

    Thanks a lot,

  17. Candy, ah, what to say, have actual tears in eyes. Feel like I am doing something important, so important, I must stand up because I don't want to be reduced to writing for adults. I'm with Mariam, I feel like saluting. Thank you for being there, thank you for sharing.

  18. It was awesome and inspirational to experience and you captured his comments brilliantly! Thanks.

  19. This is brilliant
    yes yes yes yes yes yes
    Richard peck is a kindred spirit; I would like to have him round to tea
    with you of course, Candy!


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