Children’s Author Richard Peck and The Importance of Narrative
In a past blog I wrote about the importance of narrative – how good writers know how to write it and don’t insist on always “showing” instead of “telling.” Sometimes we need to just tell, for as Francine Prose says in her 2006 New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them “there are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.” I am reminded of this as I read Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder, winner of the 2001 Newbery Medal.
Peck is one of my absolute favorite children’s authors but I somehow missed this book which happens to have won the 2001 Newbery Medal. It’s the sequel to the Newbery Honor Book A Long Way from Chicago. A Year Down Yonder is set in a small Illinois town in 1937. As the novel begins, fifteen-year-old Mary Alice is at Chicago’s Dearborn Station glumly departing for her Grandma Dowdel’s sleepy Illinois town. So the novel – like every good children’s book – begins just as everything changes. Read how deftly Peck narrates the novel’s setup on page two of a two-page prologue:
“A billboard across from the station read:
WASN’T THE DEPRESSION AWFUL?
This was to make us think the hard times were past. But now in 1937 a recession had brought us low again. People were beginning to call it the Roosevelt recession.
Dad lost his job, so we’d had to give up the apartment. He and Mother were moving into a “light housekeeping” room. They could get it for seven dollars a week with kitchen privileges, but it was only big enough for the two of them.
My brother Joey – Joe – had been taken on by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees out west. That left me, Mary Alice. I wished I was two years older and a boy. I wished I was Joey.”
These few tightly written paragraphs tell a dramatic story without sentimentality: a desperate family farming out their children, a girl departing for a place she doesn’t wish to go, a much-admired brother.
It’s a narrative that begs the reader to read on.
I’ve heard Peck speak at two writer’s conferences and regularly share his SCBWI interview with my university Writing for Children classes. I know that Peck is a strong believer in revision. You don’t get narrative this tight without revising — a lot. His words sing and whiz along so that readers hardly realize the history packed into the sentences. By the way, Peck now writes only historical fiction because he believes that kids desperately need history and the schools simply aren’t supplying it to them. But the same principles of good narrative apply to non-historical writing as well. Here’s Peck’s description of a new boy arriving in the classroom:
“The classroom door opened. Principal Fluke stood there with a new boy. The day had been gray, but crisp winter sun broke through and seemed to find the newcomer. He was as tall as Mr. Fluke and lots better-looking. His hair was red-gold, according to the sun, and not cut at home. It was razor-trimmed over ears flat to his head. Forrest Pugh, Jr.’s, ears stood straight out, like open car doors.”
We see this newcomer in all his glory: tall and sun-touched and handsome. We see him also in contrast to the norm; in this case, that norm is shorter, duller and with a kitchen haircut and stick-out ear. That contrast makes the newcomer even more alluring. Peck doesn’t write long convoluted narratives that slow down the reader. These descriptive passages are every bit as interesting as the dialog. In short, just what our own narrative passages – whether for children or adults — should be.