This morning as I got on the internet, fully intending to write a completely different article, my Twitter feed went and popped up a “we’re sorry to report the loss of another great voice in literature” tweet from Publishers Weekly‘s “Children’s Bookshelf”:
Very sad news: Newbery Medalist Richard Peck, author of 35 books for young people, died last night at home in New York City at age 84. pic.twitter.com/pwKS36eNPH
— Children’s Bookshelf (@PWKidsBookshelf) May 24, 2018
Something in my chest lumped up. Why did I never think to write to him? I thought immediately.
“But who is ‘him’?” you ask. “I understand if you got lumpy in the chest over whatshisface, that Greatest-American-Novelist that died the other day. But who’s Richard Peck?”
Okay, so Richard Peck might not be a household name, but he did win the Newbery Medal, for A Year Down Yonder in 2001, the sequel to A Long Way From Chicago, which itself had won a Newbery Honor. Just last year his last book, The Best Man, won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But he’d been writing for decades before he got all award-winning famous, and I’d discovered him in the early ’90s when I picked up an anthology of “humor for children” and found a chapter from a book he’d published a year before I’d been born.
The book was Ghosts I Have Been, a title that sucked me in right off the bat, and the chapter in the anthology was the best thing ever, so I had to track down the whole thing. It was one of four books starring Blossom Culp, a dirt-poor but dead-smart teenaged girl living with her fortune-teller single mother in a broken down caravan wagon in early 20th-century Missouri, who discovers she has Second Sight and goes about tricking bullies and solving supernatural puzzles with her not-really-boyfrienemy Alexander from the other side of the tracks, literally. That’s a mouthful, but as the books themselves are spooky and hilarious and heart-tugging all at the same time, it’s hard to keep a description short. And Blossom is a one-of-a-kind character. I was absolutely in friend-love with her.
Of course I’d write in my head what you would call fan fiction if I’d written it down, hashing out a variety of scenarios in the past and the future that she might have encountered—in my head she grew up to be a hard-hitting journalist, and of course she eventually did marry Alexander, though not without a lot of awkward drama beforehand. But none of those stories were as important as the startlingly mundane ones when she projected herself into 1990s Pennsylvania, just to hang out doing nothing in particular with another awkward outcast girl, just because she was, across time and space, her best friend ever.
She’d appear beside me as I walked home from the bus stop—time-traveling and astrally-projecting to get there, but, hey, she canonically can do both—to make some biting comment about the dummies at my middle school. I’d hash life over with her, she’d spin it in some ridiculous way and start planning revenges or triumphant successes for us to embark upon. She was fearless and funny and psychic and I wished like anything she actually did exist. So I did the best I could through make-believe. She was my Imaginary Best Friend.
The other day this Tumblr post stumbled across my dash, just the words “anyone else ever reread old books they liked when they were a kid and go ‘oh yes, that’s why i am this way’—” why yes, yes I have, I thought as I reblogged it, thinking specifically of the last time I’d read Ghosts I Have Been. Concepts, turns of phrase, grammatical quirks jumped out at me: “oh, so that’s where I go it!” I thought time and again. I hadn’t even realized how deeply it had woven itself into me until that reread.
Richard Peck had been highly involved in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I’d been in SCBWI for a few years before I realized I didn’t have the time and energy to devote to writing. I planned to join back up just as soon as motherhood got less chaotic and I could actually concentrate. And then, eventually, I was sure I’d end up at a conference or event with Richard Peck, and among all those other fans going on about Grandma Dowdel or whatnot, I would shyly but determinedly present my old paperback of Ghosts I Have Been and solemnly thank him for giving me an Imaginary Best Friend to get me through middle school. It was beyond getting an autograph from a writer I admire—this was someone who had made a deep and definite impact on my life.
I may not have run this scenario through my head as often or as passionately as I had my visits with Blossom years ago. But I’d done it enough that it never occurred to me that maybe, instead, I should thank him through a fan letter right now, instead of waiting for a meeting that might theoretically happen at some nebulous future date. It never occurred to me even though I’m a great fan of fan mail writing. Even though I wrote a whole article here about how I’m still sad I never sent my fan letter to George Harrison.
So I’ll write it here, then. I’m sure Blossom is still hanging around, reading this over my shoulder, probably snorting derisively over my word choices but cheering me on anyway. She’ll deliver it to him. Thank you, Mr. Peck. Rest In Peace.