Elementary school students interview children’s book author

June 28, 2013 

Teacher Dan Garrison met his favorite author, and that that meeting led to an unexpected opportunity for his fifth grade students at Raymore’s Bridle Ridge Intermediate School.

The students engaged in a telephone interview with the author, Richard Peck, May 17.

Peck is an award-winning children’s author. He won the 2001 Newbery Medal for “A Year Down Yonder,” the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction in 2004, and a National Humanities Medal in 2001.

On May 2-3, Peck was in Kansas City to participate in two events sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library.

On May 2, Peck presented at a workshop focusing on the use of children’s literature in reader’s theatre. Garrison attended the workshop, which was planned specifically for educators and theatre professionals.

“I have been using his books as a read-aloud for years, and my kids love his work,” Garrison said. “I introduced myself and probably gushed like a little girl – this guy is really a big deal to me. He was super nice.”

The next night, Peck was among four children’s authors featured at the Plaza Branch of the library for a public program of Author Reader’s Theatre.

For this particular program, the authors adapt their popular books for dramatic presentation. In addition to Peck, the program featured authors Brian Selznick, Sarah Weeks, and Avi.

Garrison attended the public program, as did several of his students and their families.

“He not only remembered our meeting from the previous night, but offered his phone number to have a class interview,” Garrison said. “He shied away from Skype, as he said he wasn't very comfortable with technology. (He still writes on a typewriter.) He is also sending us an advanced copy of his forthcoming book.”

Peck’s books that Garrison has read aloud to students in his classes include: “A Long Way from Chicago” and “A Year Down Yonder” (both Newberry winners) and “A Season of Gifts.”

They are historical fiction/humor books that remind Garrison of the style of Mark Twain.

“We use his books to discuss perspectives, make connections across time, and practice inferencing skills,” Garrison said.

Peck agreed to a phone conference interview, which was conducted May 17. The students worked to develop questions.

“The kids were so excited, and he was very gracious,” Garrison said. “He really is the nicest man.”

Here are the questions, and Peck’s responses (edited for length):

Garrison’s class: How long does it take to write a book? And how much of that time is spent revising and editing?

Peck: Typically it takes about a year. I spend six months writing the first 40 pages. Then six months for the remainder of the book. I then go back and toss the first chapter as you never truly know how a book should start until it’s finished.

I also force myself to remove 20 words from a page after I feel I have it finished.

Garrison’s class: How do you make sure your character’s personalities are consistent throughout a book or series?

Peck: I rehearse and act out what they are saying by walking around the room and hearing my words out loud.

That allows me to maintain a character and ensure that it is their words, not mine being said.

Garrison’s class: They say ‘write what you know.’ How do you do that when writing in different time periods?

Peck: They’re wrong. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Expand what you know. Research. Spend time in the library. Explore different subjects and styles.

Garrison’s class: Where did you come up with the character of Grandma Dowdel?

Peck: Grandma Dowdel is a compilation of my great aunts when I was a boy. They were old women, and big. And tough. And I was fascinated by them. Grandma grew from those memories; but I was able to control Grandma better than I ever could my great aunts.

Garrison’s class: What advice do you have for an aspiring writer?

Peck: Expand your vocabulary. Try and learn at least five new words a day. As a writer you need to be able to talk through different characters that speak differently than yourself. And read. Spend time in the library. I’ve never known a good writer that wasn’t first a good reader.

Garrison’s class: Who is your biggest influence as an author?

Peck: When I was a youngster I was introduced to the writing of Mark Twain. His book, “Huckleberry Finn,” changed my life and made me want to live in words. I still keep a copy of it on my desk and if I ever hit a block, I simply pick it up and reread a couple of pages.

Garrison’s class: What inspired you to become a writer?

Peck: I was a high school English teacher. I was re-assigned to junior high. I say re-assigned because nobody in their right mind would choose that grade level. And I found that my students didn’t want to read or write.

So I began writing short stories to get their attention. I would never have become an author if it weren’t for being assigned to teach middle school.

Garrison’s class: Have you written any books that have not been published?

Peck: I have been very fortunate. I have never had a book rejected. But I have written works that I did not submit because I didn’t feel they worked in their final draft. My latest book, “Secrets at Sea,” has mice as the characters. It was originally written with humans.

After I finished it, I realized it didn’t work. I came up with the idea of changing the characters to mice and it seemed to work perfectly.

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