The Year I Met Peter by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
A published author writing about herself as a child reader? Well, here’s some honest irony.
As a kid, I was a non-reader.
Having had no exposure to books prior to kindergarten, I started behind. I was placed in the lowest reading group and remained there until the middle of sixth grade.
Now, let me say that I may have been a bit of a conundrum to my teachers. When my turn came during reading group to answer a question, I rarely had an reply. (Because I’d have been playing “letter games” like putting words in alphabetical order rather than…you know…actually reading the sentences.) They’d smile as if to pat me on the head. My silence coupled with the fact that I was often a reserved, messy kid? Well, I suppose I seemed like a child whom they shouldn’t expect much from. I knew they thought I was dumb and, for reasons I haven’t quite figured out yet, I let them believe that. For a long time.
But things would abruptly change. The sixth grade would shift everything. For this was the year that I met Peter.
Peter Hatcher was a boy that won a pet turtle at a birthday party. For me, he was the first character that lived and breathed on pages. His home, Judy Blume’s TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, had been handed to me by my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Christy.
I still remember being on the first page and feeling something I never had before—an actual caring for what would happen next (In reading groups, we’d only read from simple basal readers). I remember reading a few of Ms. Blume’s pages and then turning back to the cover and staring for a long time. Drawing my fingertips down the picture before going back to reading. I was fascinated with Peter and Fudge; they felt real.
I finished the book quickly and then moved onto Ms. Blume’s long list of other books. Soon after, I devoured Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books—now that was a girl I wanted to be friends with. The books were not difficult at all which was a surprise to me—and to Mr. Christy, I think.
For my book report, I did a diorama of TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING. Previous to this, I hadn’t invested time in reports as I would do them without opening the books. However, this time I sat down and experimented with paper folding and figured out how to make paper boxes. With these, I created appliances for a kitchen that was depicted as a line drawing in the novel. I designed flooring and wallpaper with paper/magic markers, carefully pasting them in. Over the sink, I put in a window. Cardboard versions of Peter and his mother stood under a light that swung from the ceiling. I even added the light switch on the wall.
Mr. Christy’s shock was obvious. Then, he complimented me, telling me what a phenomenal job I had done and…that he was proud of me.
I stood silent. I wasn’t a rude kid, but I didn’t know what to say, I think. Maybe I was letting the moment seep in. Or perhaps it just felt unnatural – like eating spaghetti for breakfast. I did feel proud though, stood a bit taller. Although, I was also embarrassed.
After devouring about a dozen books, I found one that I was really taken with—a book that I read over and over, finishing the last page and then flipping back to Chapter One to begin again.
It was THE CAY by Theodore Taylor, a World War 2 era book about a young boy named Philip who is stranded on a raft/island with a black man named Timothy. Philip is prejudiced and self-centered at first, but the two grow to love each other as Timothy becomes Philip’s teacher, friend, protector, and ultimately, his savior. I remember being fascinated with a man who completely gives of himself in the face of anger and unkindness. There are shadows of Timothy and Philip in Mrs. Murphy and Carley, I think.
So, it’s no coincidence that I wrote a book about incorrect perceptions of others and ourselves.
A book about fitting in and standing out.
A book about being someone’s hero with no cape required. How ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Like hand an overlooked, disheveled girl a book. Or notice how hard she worked to create such a pristine diorama.
It wasn’t that Mr. Christy gave me that book as much as that he cared enough to give me that book; having been with him a year, I remember how he always saw the child before the student. Yes, the student in me benefitted—but it was the child in me that needed some proof that I was enough. He gave me the highest compliment a teacher can pay—high expectations.
By doing so, he lifted me from one path and placed me on another. He gave me real self esteem—which grew out of impressing myself. I entered middle school with a different vision of what I could accomplish down the road.
In creating a character like Carley Connors, how could I not have eleven-year-old Lynda on my shoulder, reminding me of the difference a teacher—or an author–can make to a life without ever knowing it? How could readers know that I’d been thinking about that all along as I wrote One for the Murphys?
Well, if you ever get the chance to see my book, please take a look at the title of Chapter Four.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the author of middle-grade novel, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin), winner of The Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children’s Literature. She is also a former teacher and Scenario Writing coach. Lynda has been Director of the SCBWI-NE Whispering Pines Retreat for six years. Lynda lives with her husband, two kids, impetuous beagle and beagle-loathing cat. You can find her online at http://lyndamullalyhunt.com/ and on Twitter as @Lynmullalyhunt.