Jan Peck’s third grade teacher did not like her. “I was trouble,” Peck says. “I was always looking out the window, goofing off.” But when Peck turned in a writing assignment about her turtle that was lost in her house for a month, this same teacher told Peck she would be a writer some day. “I wanted to be a veterinarian or a ballerina,” Peck says with a hint of a Texas twang.
In college, Peck studied biology and biochemistry while raising two children. She remembers visiting the public library with her youngest son in a stroller. “I took him out of the stroller and filled the stroller with books,” she says. Peck left college two semesters shy of earning her degree. “I fell in love with children’s book and I went after it.”
Peck studied giants in the children’s book world such as James Marshall (George and Martha), Arnold Lobel (Mouse Tales), Bill Martin, Jr. (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom) and Dr. Seuss. As a Girl Scout, and later a Girl Scout leader, Peck loved telling the story “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” “It has all the elements of a good plot,” she says. “A goal, obstacles, reaching the goal, and coming back home.”
Peck jokes that although she started writing at eight years old with her third grade turtle story, she did not become serious about the profession until she was 33. “I wrote for three years without publishing anything,” she says. Highlights for Children gave Peck her first break into publishing with a story called “Handful of Worms.” Peck also volunteered for the Texas chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators to meet like-minded people and to make connections with editors. With the 1998 publication of The Giant Carrot, Peck broke into the picture book market.
POP (pencil-on-paper) is a free writing strategy that Peck developed to unleash her creativity before she begins writing for the day. Ideas for the quirky family of gardeners inThe Giant Carrot first made their appearance in POP exercises. Peck combined a recent retelling of the classic tale “The Big Turnip” with her interest in organic gardening and her love of carrots, then added a twist of her native Texas. The Giant Carrot was awarded the 1998 Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year. “Little Isabelle is such a positive force,” Peck says of the young heroine in her story. “Even the smallest person can be the deciding factor.”
Simplicity is Peck’s watchword. She labors over each word in her picture books trying to use as few words as possible, focusing on rhythm and clarity. As a former freelance editor for Boys’ Life magazine, she frequently wrote stories in 100 words or less.
Way Down Deep in the Deep Blue Sea (another POP idea) is only 200 words, but Peck labored over the text for over two years with her editor before finding the perfect combination of words and rhythms. Peck’s story dives into a boy’s imagination as he sees the whole ocean in his bathtub. Valeria Petrone’s illustrations add another dimension to Peck’s text juxtaposing the sea creatures against the main character. “You may not realize how the art is impacting the child,” says Peck, “but it’s helping them understand different sizes.”
Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree and Way Far Away on a Wild Safari, modeled after WayDown Deep in the Deep Blue Sea, allow Peck to pass on her love of ecology and the variety found in Earth’s ecosystems. Peck’s favorite childhood memory is “running wild out in the country with all the animals.” She had 20 cats and dogs, a possum, a crow, a red-eared turtle, and ring-neck doves.
When Peck visits schools, she tells students that they do not have to wait to grow up to be writers. They can begin now by jotting down their ideas in a journal. Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, Peck says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is finite, but imagination is infinite.”