Peck’s Picks

by Ann Jacobus on January 18, 2012

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Two children’s librarians and one children’s writer must choose their favorite Richard Peck books for young readers.

JEANETTE LARSON picks: GHOSTS I HAVE BEEN. Published in 1977, this is one of Richard Peck’s earliest books and it followed the first book about Blossom Culp, The Ghost Belonged to Me, and his highly successful books for teens. Written for slightly younger readers, Blossom Culp is a delightfully rambunctious and intelligent girl who discovers that she has the gift of “second sight.” This, along with her family situation and poverty, makes her something of a social outcast in Town Bluff, an early 20th century town that is a fictionalized version of Peck’s hometown.

Although she is used to seeing the Unseen, Blossom is shocked when she realizes that she is seeing herself among the passengers aboard the Titanic…and the ship is sinking. Can she help a young boy who has been left by his parents to drown? Can she use her paranormal powers to change history? Of course not, but this is a scary story that will appeal to readers who enjoy mystery, humor, adventure, the paranormal, and a little romance.

Peck has said that the past is his favorite place and he fills the story with historical information without making the book feel weighted down with lots of facts. This was one of the first books I recall reading that included the Titanic, and it inspired my interest in reading more about the ship and its fateful journey.

KRISTEN REMENAR: “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” I read this first line of THE TEACHER’S FUNERAL by Richard Peck to a crowd of fifth graders. There was a collective intake of breath, a glancing around to make sure the teachers were smiling, and then the waves of laughter.

When the one-room schoolteacher Miss Myrt Arbuckle dies, Russell Culver thinks his dream has come true. No more school! For who could they find to replace Miss Arbuckle in time for school to start in this tiny, backwoods Indiana town? Russell’s older sister, Tansy, that’s who. If Russell thought school was painful before, what would it be like being taught by his bossy older sister?

This is one of my favorite books by Richard Peck, and I love sharing it, especially with kids who haven’t discovered how fun historical fiction can be. The description of the departed school marm is fantastic: “she was hard of hearing in one ear, no doubt deafened by her own screaming. And she couldn’t whup us like she wanted to… she had arthritis in that elbow.” I asked my fifth graders if they’d like being taught by an older sibling who had the school-appointed power to “whup ya”. After enthusiastically responding in the negative, I think all those kids had a bit more appreciation for their teachers. They most certainly had appreciation for one of the all-time master writers, Richard Peck, because “The Teacher’s Funeral” flies off the shelf every time I share it.

ANN JACOBUS:  It’s cheating a little, but I pick anything by Richard Peck with Grandma Dowdel in it. So far, that would be three books: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN YONDER and A SEASON OF GIFTS.

Grandma Dowdel had me from the moment she deftly deflects bully Mildred Burdick (who’s harassing her granddaughter Mary Alice), first by giving her some buttermilk and cornbread, then hiding her boots and shooing her stolen horse back to its owner so Mildred has to walk five miles home barefoot. When GD sneaks onto neighbors’ farms in the dead of night for a few pie ingredients, or vanquishes the stuffy Daughters of the American Revolution tea party, or better yet, pulls out her shotgun to chase off unscrupulous traveling preachers, we’re rooting for her. But when she uses her taciturn cunning to get the foolish town people to cough up (scarce) money for veterans, to get the bank to rescind an old lady’s foreclosure, or slyly matchmakes, she reveals her generous, do-gooder spirit and we love and admire her.

Bonus pick: My sister read ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE in late 1978 and still hasn’t gotten over it.

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