NEW YORK — Richard Peck, a former English teacher whose award-winning novels for young readers used historical fiction, horror, and other genres to tell stories about rape, unwanted pregnancy, and suicide, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84.
His sister, Cheryl Peck, said the cause was kidney failure. He had received a diagnosis of bladder cancer.
“I’m a writer because I never had a teacher who said, ‘Write what you know,’ ” Mr. Peck said in a speech to the Library of Congress Book Festival in 2013. “If I’d been limited to writing what I know, I would have produced one unpublishable haiku.”
He added: “Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit. J.K. Rowling did not attend Hogwarts School.”
Yet Mr. Peck’s final novel, “The Best Man” (2016), echoed his personal life more than most of his books.
A coming-of age story about a young boy, it deals in part with the same-sex marriage of his uncle and his teacher.
Around the time of its publication, the intensely private Mr. Peck publicly came out as gay. Until then, his sister said, “If you wanted to know Richard Peck, you could find him in his novels and in his messages about growing up responsibly.”
During an interview to promote that book with Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book, a journal of children’s and young adult books, Mr. Peck reflected on the advances that gay rights had made in his lifetime.
“Now, in the 21st century, something wonderful has happened,” he said. “It’s also a history lesson, and that is: History doesn’t move at a steady pace. One day you wake up and the world is in a different place.”
Still, Mr. Peck was reminded of a less tolerant past in March when an administrator at Athens Academy, a private school in Georgia, acted on a parent’s complaint to remove “The Best Man” from a book-fair display of books for children ages 3-9 that had been nominated for awards. Rather than move the book out of the sight of children, Avid Bookshop, which ran the fair, shut the event down, uncomfortable with the school’s attempted censorship.
Mr. Peck responded on Facebook, writing that Avid’s action proved that “an attack upon one book is an attack upon all” and that “an independent bookstore has all sorts of supple strength that the frightened school and the vast and unlocal chain bookstores don’t have.”
John Thorsen, the head of school, apologized in a message posted on its website, calling the incident a “deeply regrettable set of circumstances that is not consistent with our welcoming, safe and inclusive environment.”
Richard Wayne Peck was born in Decatur, Ill. His father, Wayne, managed a service station and later owned a hardware store. His mother, Virginia (Gray) Peck, was a homemaker who also worked as a bookkeeper at the store.
He immersed himself in the distant world through National Geographic magazine and the maps he studied in school. He devoured Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” And his fourth grade teacher introduced him to Mark Twain.
“Mrs. Cole stepped up behind me with a book in her hand,” he said in the 2013 speech. “She handed it to me and said, ‘Here, you might try this.’ Notice the verb, ‘try.’ Not ‘like.’ Adults weren’t concerned with what children liked. But ‘try’ was a kind of challenge.”
The book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” inspired his lifelong admiration of Twain.
“I could never be Mark Twain,” he said, “but I will die trying.”
After graduating from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, Mr. Peck served in the Army as a chaplain’s assistant. He then earned a master’s in English from Southern Illinois University.
He taught English at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., and at Hunter College Campus Schools in Manhattan, where his students were at the junior high level.
After about 10 years, he became disenchanted; he once said that teaching had turned into something “that looked weirdly like psychiatric social work.” He felt that he could become a more effective teacher by writing books for children his students’ ages.
In all, he wrote more than 40 books, mostly for fourth- to seventh-graders but sometimes for teenagers. He also wrote a few for adults, including “London Holiday” (1998) and “New York Time” (1981), and a memoir, “Anonymously Yours” (1991).
His first novel, “Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt” (1972), was about an unwanted pregnancy, and was adapted into the film “Gas Food Lodging” 20 years later. In his paranormal novel “Three Quarters Dead” (2010), a high school girl crashes her car while texting. “Are You in the House Alone?” (1976), Mr. Peck’s novel about the rape of a teenage baby sitter, won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery fiction.
“When I was in middle school, my favorite book was ‘Are You in the House Alone?’ ” Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Mr. Peck’s longtime editor, said in a telephone interview. “It took me a number of years to admit that to him.”
Mr. Peck set some books during the Civil War and others during the Great Depression. In “A Year Down Yonder” (2000), a 15-year-old girl leaves Chicago during hard times for her family in the 1930s to live with her eccentric grandmother. The novel, which won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children’s literature, employed a familiar theme of Mr. Peck’s: that youngsters should get to know their elders.
Reviewing “A Year Down Yonder” for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Jim Gladstone wrote that “Peck gently places historical and economic background information within rollicking tales.” He added, “Young readers will be effortlessly educated even as they are entertained by Grandma’s adventures in fox hunting, snob baiting and all-around small-town showboating.”
Mr. Peck was a showman, frequently delivering speeches about children’s literature and promoting his books at schools around the country.
“He wrote a kind of nostalgia, with a Garrison Keillor style, that kids could grasp,” Betsy Bird, a children’s book author and the collection development manager of the Evanston Public Library system in Illinois, said in a telephone interview. Watching him speak, she said, “He was incredibly quick on his feet and very eloquent.”
In addition to his sister, Mr. Peck leaves his companion, Noble Brundage.
Mr. Peck often talked about the need for children to learn history through vivid storytelling. Referring to president Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech — which invoked Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, locations of critical importance to the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements — Mr. Peck said in 2013 that young students must be told those stories “and a thousand more.”
They must hear those stories “from us, the elders, we writers in our empty rooms trying to make our brains bleed directly onto a blank page,” he told the book festival, and from “parents and grandparents and teachers and librarians; adults with our books in our hands, with pages turning to our readers’ futures.”