(Or simply click over to your library's website and request a copy online. If you can manage a Facebook page, you can figure out your local library's website. You can even set up your online library account so that the librarians email you when your book comes in, and again when it is almost due. The wonders of technology in the modern age! You can DO IT! I'm looking at you, Donaldson.)
If A Long Way From Chicago is checked out or sold out, you can begin with the sequel, A Year Down Yonder, which Edmund and I recently read together for the library's Kids' Book Club.
A Year Down Yonder takes place during the Great Depression. Fifteen year-old Mary Alice is sent downstate (that's Illinois speak for anywhere that's not Chicago) to live with her Grandma Dowdel. Her father has lost his job. Her parents have given up the apartment for a one room rental. Her big brother, Joey, is away with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Mary Alice does a lot of growing up in her year with Grandma. Grandma teaches her generosity, by providing the whole town with pecan and pumpkin pies for the Halloween party. She teaches her justice, when they catch a Halloween prankster with a pan of homemade glue. Grandma teaches the value of hard-work, as they tramp through the woods at all hours on winter nights trapping foxes for fur. She teaches her friendship when they check on the town outcasts after the tornado.
My favorite lesson is the lesson on charity. The chapters follow the seasons, and I always get choked up by the Veterans' Day Turkey Shoot, without fail.
I do not want to give anything away, but this chapter led to a deep conversation about World War I, mustard gas, the movie War Horse (also excellent), and my own great-grandfather who spent three days in No Man's Land with a bullet wound. Thankfully, the third day brought the Armistice and he was rescued, or I wouldn't be here today.
Mary Alice learns to see Grandma Dowdel as more than a large, fiercely private, baking wonder with a 12 gauge shotgun. If you've read A Long Way From Chicago, you already knew that too.
Grandma Dowdel is hands-down my favorite literary character of all time. Peck writes her with a no-nonsense charm. Lines like, "She aimed one of her chins down the platform." and "Like a ship under sail, she went to the door." made our family giggle out loud. I just know you'll love her too, with "her big hands on her big hips."
We've listened to these books on car trips as a family, and enjoyed them both child and adult. Some of the subject matter is a little mature. Whose live infant ends up in the Nativity play manger, and how Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel discover the painter boarding with them is painting the postmistress...in the nude...are two such examples. Both episodes are hilariously written.
Scholastic says these books are appropriate for grades 4th through 7th, as though anyone out of 7th grade would not want to spend an afternoon with Grandma Dowdel.
Scholastic also give us a glimpse into the wonderfully creative mind of Richard Peck, who along with Grandma Dowdel is one of my heroes.
Edmund and I are back-tracking now and reading A Long Way From Chicago. It takes place in the late 20s, early 30s. Joey and Mary Alice spend one week every summer with Grandma Dowdel and something outrageous always seems to coincide with their week.
I'm hoping to finish up in time to read A Season of Gifts in December, the last of the Grandma Dowdel books...at this time. One can always hope.
Then, we'll probably read On the Wings of Heroes or Fair Weather or The Teacher's Funeral or Here Lies the Librarian. That should bring us to next October, when I like to read about Blossom Culp in my favorite ghost story, The Ghost Belonged to Me.
I see that Richard just had a new title published this summer. I'll have to check it out. I own his previous mousy adventure, Secrets at Sea and though it was lovely, I prefer his novels set in rural locales starring real people. (Did you hear me, Mr. Peck? More stories about small town characters please!)
Go read about Grandma Dowdel. I'm craving pie just thinking about her.