My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE RIVER BETWEEN US by Richard Peck

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2004 award winner, The River Between Us by Richard Peck.

The young adult novel begins in 1916 when a teen boy, his two young brothers, and their father travel to visit the father’s elderly parents and aunt and uncle in southern Illinois. The boy meets his extended family for the first time, learns what happened to them during the first part of the Civil War, and how their war-time experiences fifty years earlier affected his life.

History Lessons:

Travels by car in 1916–One of the fun things about this story was seeing what it would be like to travel by automobile in 1916. The family packed extra cans of gas, endured multiple flat tires, and camped overnight at the side of the road–such a different way to travel than most of us experience.

For more information about life with the early autos, see the Henry Ford website. It offers fun diary entries of a fictional girl in 1919 whose family purchases their first car and takes their first major trip.

Reason for learning family history–One of the protagonists, Howard, states the reason well:

“Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn’t picture it. Even at the age of fifteen I knew but little about who he was and where he’d come from. And so I knew but little about myself.”

Writing Lessons:

Narrators looking backward–A convention of children’s literature is that protagonists (and the reader) experience the story as it happens. This is one of the ways to tell if a story with a child protagonist is a children’s story or an adult story. In the latter case, the child protagonist usually narrates from a more mature point of view, giving comments about what he or she learned, or what event was yet to come.

In this book, Peck breaks that rule. He has two narrators who tell their stories, both from a future perspective. How does he do this and still appeal to child/teen readers who don’t like the lessons of memoir? He uses mystery, conflict, and a wonderful voice.

Here’s an example of one character describing another in an interesting, fresh, and just plain fun way:

“Noah was his silent self. Most times, he could make a tree seem talkative.” –Tilly

Two stories within the story–Peck frames the Civil War story with the 1916 story of the boy meeting his family. As I read I wondered why he began with the boy/extended family story. I thought the Civil War story was great and could stand on its own–the protagonist had her own, complete story arc.

Then when I read the last part of the 1916 story, I understood why. The Civil War story had more depth when we see how it affected the 1916 story, and Howard could not complete his story arc in 1916 without learning the Civil War story.

Join me Jan. 26 for my next challenge book, the 2011 winner, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia.

Have you ever ridden in a Model T? What’s the most adventurous mode of travel you’ve tried? What other books do you love to read because of the author’s voice? What other books frame a complete story within another complete story?


  1. Mary Louise Sanchez

    I’ll have to read this one. Richard Peck is one of my favorite authors. He spoke to our children’s literature class before he became famous.

    • Deb Watley

      How fun that you saw him pre-fame! I’ve seen his SCBWI DVD interview, and I’ve read some of his historical fiction and one of his new mouse stories, but I love how he inserts humor into those. And I love that he often includes grandparent/grandchild relationships. I haven’t read his early books. Which of his books is your favorite?

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