Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts
Written by Richard Peck
Dial Books
Reviewed by Carl V.

This month's issue of Estella's Revenge is about growth and what better time to review one of prolific young adult author Richard Peck's outstanding books. I don't know about you, but it appears to me that there are three stages to one's relationship with children's literature. As a child you can open these books and experience worlds of wonder that stay with you throughout your adult life. Later on you may hit an adolescent period of reading in which books shelved in the YA section of the bookstore have little or no appeal. But as you grow and mature and the demands of every day life weigh heavily upon you, it seems that many an adult reader returns to the YA bookshelf only to discover that there is a new sort of magic present in these books. A magic that comes from a foundation of knowledge gleaned from living life. If you are one of those folks, a grown up who enjoys reading books for 'kids', then Richard Peck is the author for you.

If you are unaware of who Richard Peck is, you are not alone. Despite the fact that this Newbery Award winning author has written over 30 stories in the past 3 decades, I had never heard of him before I stumbled across a few of his books this past Christmas while shopping for my wife. Amazon.com describes Richard Peck as a 'master of middle-grade historical fiction' and based upon my recent experience with his work I concur.

On a trip up north this past weekend I had the pleasure of listening to an unabridged audio presentation of Richard Peck's novel, The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts. To say that this novel is delightful, whimsical, nostalgic, funny, heart-warming and satisfying would be to short-change the experience of this book. The list of adjectives would need to extend well beyond these choice few.

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts
tells the story of 15 year old Russell Culver and the adventures he experiences in the countryside of Indiana in 1904: the year his teacher dies and school is no more. Or so Russell hopes. Those schoolboy dreams are soon dashed when his high school age sister accepts the job and turns Russell's home and school life into one long lesson. Peck introduces a cast of characters who are uproariously funny and all-too-human. His writing has a witty conversational style that makes you feel as if you are sitting on an old front porch somewhere, glass of lemonade in hand, listening to your granddad or your favorite uncle telling tales about how things used to be. Adding an immense deal of pleasure to this experience is the phenomenal, Emmy-nominated performance of Dylan Baker. Baker reads with the sort of ease one stereotypically associates with an old-timey tale and yet does so with such life that you smile and laugh and get choked up along with these characters as if they were people you had known your whole life. For most of the reading I sported a grin from ear to ear. The Teacher's Funeral is a laugh-out-loud funny story wrapped around a touching tale of family love and the power of community. The message is not heavy handed, but when it gets to you it warms the heart.

Based on this first experience I myself am ready to crown Richard Peck a Master. There is not a wasted word or wasted moment in this book. At 4.5 hours for the audio, 224 pages for the book, Peck creates a tight narrative with a pacing that keeps you interested from start to finish. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts is the kind of story that can be shared with the whole family. If you cannot get a copy of the audio version (we found ours at the local library) then I recommend this one as a read aloud family event. If, like me, you are a kid at heart you will no doubt find some deeper humor seen through the eyes of one who has grown up.

Growth is important. To stagnate or to travel backwards is never a good thing. But to revisit youth, through our memories or through the rewarding act of experiencing quality young adult fiction, is an action that I believe propels us forward despite how contrary that may sound. To be able to share that growing experience with your entire family cultivates the kind of connection that will last a lifetime. Go and experience Richard Peck. You'll be glad that you did.

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