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.
“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.”
Richard Wayne Peck was born on April 5, 1934, 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.’”
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. After about 10 years, he became disenchanted. 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 babysitter, won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery fiction.
“When I was in middle school, my favourite book was Are You in the House Alone?” Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Mr. Peck’s long-time editor, said in a telephone interview. “It took me a number of years to admit that to him.”
In addition to his sister, Mr. Peck leaves his companion, Noble Brundage.