When children’s book author Richard Peck asked a library filled with Roosevelt School fifth-graders to guess what job he had before he became a published writer, their answers were varied.
“A doctor,” suggested one student.
“A newspaper writer,” said another.
“A movie star!” called out one boy, causing a smile to appear on the author’s face.
But Peck, who has published over 40 books since 1971, was actually a teacher for 12 years, including a stint at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook.
“My students made a writer out of me because they let me know what they liked to read and what they didn’t,” Peck told the room of more than 80 students on Oct. 3.
Peck’s visit to the Park Ridge school was part of a promotional event for his latest book, “The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail.” He also appeared at the Book Stall in Winnetka.
Fifth-graders at Roosevelt prepared for Peck’s visit by reading some of his books, said librarian Linda Diekman. At least one student carried a copy of a book that he asked Peck to autograph.
“I hope they take away an appreciation for the process that goes into writing,” Diekman said of the students.
Peck, a Newberry Medal winner, said he wanted to be an author “since the first day my mother read to me.” He recalled how he developed his books from stories he heard around him and how, as a child, he listened to the memories of the men who stopped by his father’s gas station.
“In those days there were old, old men, sitting in the sun telling stories,” Peck said. “Those were the first stories I heard people tell.”
Some of the men remembered riding the first Ferris wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Peck said. Eventually, this made its way into one of his children’s stories, too.
“All of my stories seem to be about other people’s memories,” he shared.
Peck’s latest book, “The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail,” was inspired by a visit to Buckingham Palace, he told the students. The book is about an orphaned mouse’s adventure in finding out who he really is.
Peck also spoke to the students about his book “A Long Way from Chicago” — featuring the “heavily-armed and trigger-happy” grandma — and its sequel, “A Year Down Yonder,” which won the Newberry Medal.
In all the years that Peck has been writing, what children are seeking in their books really hasn’t changed all that much, Peck believes.
“I think they’re still looking for themselves and I think they’re still looking for the journey,” he said.