By Kim Tomsic
I knew I’d look for him the minute I walked into the SCBWI conference ballroom. I fiercely hoped to love him as much in person as I did in my imagination. Author Richard Peck has given me a pile of gifts: laughter, tears, and adventures through characters like Grandma Dowdel, Blossom Culp, and Tilly Pruitt. As the two time winner of the Newbery Medal, the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the ALAN Award, and the Edgar Allen Poe Award, he has received acknowledgement from those far greater than me, but I needed to thank him myself. Why, you ask...
By day, my husband bonds with my son over paintball wars, air soft guns, and pocketknives. But by night, I bond with my child through the magic of literature thanks to authors like Richard Peck. Evening time is when my son is riveted as I read aloud, hijacking a Peck character’s voice, and we sail on a Huckleberry Finn-type adventure. The enchanting time-travel journey Richard Peck provides pushes far beyond anything found in even Fodor's most exotic excursion booklet.
When I arrived at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators National Conference (www.scbwi.org) and walked into the Hyatt ballroom, I scanned the 950 people mingling and sipping coffee. There was no sign of Richard Peck. But after I found a seat, superhero music blasted from speakers. Applause filled the room and the conference faculty made their way to the podium, one by one offering a single word for the weekend. Literary agents spoke hopeful words like “yes!” and editors said happy words like “chocolate.” Richard Peck reached the microphone and said, “friend;” then he raised his eyebrows and added, “and that is not a verb.”
I can’t complain that the Friday morning wait to shake Mr. Peck’s hand was grueling—it wasn’t. I honestly belly-laughed all through Sherman Alexie’s presentation (a speech as funny as his book The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian) and I was dazzled by the stimulating art of David Wiesner (Flotsam). I concluded my morning trifecta (comedy, art, music) with the delightful and irreverent tunes of Frank Portman (King Dork). But when 3:15pm rolled around and I bounced my way to Richard Peck’s seminar entitled Setting: the Landscape of Story, I found the great man greeting people as they walked in the door, thanking folks for attending his seminar. He was thanking us!
Sitting in class beside me was Newbery Medal winner, Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard). She fiercely jotted notes and was as enamored with the teacher as I was. Throughout the lesson, I was impressed by Mr.Peck and thought, here is a true gentleman plucked right out of yesteryear; he’s like one of his very own characters (not Grandma Dowdel of course). Another attendee, who accurately read the admiration plastered on my face, told me that one time Mr. Peck had agreed to speak at her regional conference. Later it was publically announced that Richard Peck won the ALAN Award. The ALAN ceremony was scheduled on the same day as her conference. Sure enough, she received a phone call from Mr. Peck. She expected him to cancel. Instead, he said he was calling because he realized the events overlapped and that he wanted her to know he did not intend to cancel his commitment. She was flabbergasted, but recovered by saying that he needed to receive his award. She canceled on him.
My time to shake my hero's hand finally arrived at the end of the day. Like a star struck teenager, I asked him to sign my copies of A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not even from the generation I’m about to reference, but the first thing that gushed from my unbridled mouth was, “I’m your biggest fanilow!” His eyebrows bounced twice and he graciously smiled. With a sparkle in his eyes, he said, “Why thank you; and I know what that means!” He looked right at me when he talked and not at the swarm of people all wanting a piece of him. He was patient and pleasant and everything I hoped for. I was respectful and moved along to allow others a turn to prattle, but I watched as he generously gave every last fanilow time for questions and photos.
I had a chance to redeem my goofy first impression. Later that evening, I entered an elevator and there he was. Could I be cool about the situation? No! Earlier in the day, I had enjoyed watching author Ellen Hopkins (Crank) on the podium; she danced and skipped when she talked about the joy of writing, so I danced my way into the elevator; I did a jig a-la Ellen Hopkins, and I announced to the passengers, “It’s Richard Peck! It’s Richard Peck!”
Later I sent my thirteen-year-old daughter a text, “I just met Richard Peck!!! That’s equivalent to you meeting a Jonas Brother.” The reply came back, “Ha Ha Mom. U R so weird.” I knew she was secretly impressed since (years ago) she was the first to introduce a Peck book to our family (Here Lies the Librarian). When I called home, my son was outwardly wowed and said, “Make sure you get his autograph!” I did better, I got a photo—not a good one, because I didn’t have the heart to ask for a second chance (which he would have indulged), but I have a treasured photo none the less.
Over the conference weekend, Richard Peck escalated to the highest level of my admiration. I saw him many times in the audience. He was referenced by author after esteemed author. Men want a bromance, women adore him, and children are captivated by his writing. Without a doubt, we all love Richard Peck. We love his charm, his beautiful and gentle heart, his chivalrous nature, his witty quips, and his gift to entertain.
At the end of the SCBWI Conference, Richard Peck gave a humble presentation to a captivated and packed audience at Sunday’s Golden Kite luncheon. He delivered an entertaining, funny, and tear-tugger keynote address and while the audience froze under his spell, waiting for more, he quickly and modestly exited the stage before what followed—an explosion of applause and a standing ovation.
Mr. Peck says that in every story, nobody grows up before they have to, but eventually sombody has to. In my childish and bubbling awe of the master, I knew it wasn’t me growing up anytime soon.
Some of Richard Peck’s 18 books for middle grade and YA readers include: A Long Way from Chicago (Newbery Honor winner), A Year Down Yonder (Newbery Medal winner), and new release, A Season of Gifts.