YA Book Review: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck. A Year Down Yonder. Broadway, New York: Scholastic, 2000.

A Year Down Yonder is an incredibly relatable story for young readers. Everybody, at some point in their lives, matures and deals with difficult people. Like other stories of its kind, A Year Down Yonder can serve to show readers of all ages how one can adjust to new settings, make new friends, and deal with many of life’s difficulties – be they personal, petty, big, or small.

Peck tells the story of young girl from Chicago named Mary Alice who, given the country’s lingering post-depression economic troubles, is forced to leave her home and parents to live with her grandmother – a crotchety old woman with a reputation for bucking the rules.

Mary Alice starts the first day at her new school on the wrong side of class bully, Mildred Burdick, who follows her home. Grandma, however, turns the tables and Mildred soon loses interest in stirring up trouble, which later comes in October, with the name August Fluke, who tries knocking down their privy. Grandma prevents his midnight stunt with a clever trap, and at the school Halloween party, Grandma dishes up home-baked pies that she made with stolen pumpkins and pecans.

Mary Alice and her Grandma’s adventures continue year-round, from the Armistice Day Turkey Shoot, where Grandma stirs things up by making the soup affordable, and the school Christmas Pageant, when Mary Alice is set up against the snobbish Carleen Lovejoy. Tricks and pranks abound when a new boy, Royce McNabb, arrives at school in time for Carleen to develop a Valentine’s Day, but not without Mary Alice and her friend Ina-Rae playing a prank on her to get even.

That same spring, Grandma takes in an artist to pay room and board, and Mary Alice develops her own affinity for Royce. Grandma plays match-maker, she and Mary Alice survive a tornado, and the year finishes up with Royce and Mary Alice promising to exchange letters while they’re apart.

The characters and the relationships that develop and evolve throughout A Year Down Yonder are realistic and relatable while still retaining the imaginative quality and historical relevance that makes the book such a wonderful escape from modern adolescent life – much the way that Mary Alice escapes her own familiar life by spending a year down yonder.

Recommendations for Teachers

A popular argument for the adoption of more recent books to be taught in schools certainly applies to A Year Down Yonder. The book offers fresh classroom (and out-of-the-classroom) material, in contrast to giving students what is considered “classic literature”. It’s nice to have a new voice in literature that has been published in the last decade; even if it’s historic, it’s still “new”, and not just the same stuff that our parents and the parents of our students – be they current or future – read themselves, when they were younger.

Much the way that A Year Down Yonder is an imaginative and engaging story, activities in the classroom can be, with numerous ways to teach English principles for reading and writing, as well as social studies topics.

Some ideas for activities and discussion:

Book-related activities:

  • Vocabulary: For example, “What are “vittles”?”
  • Vocabulary for slang/dialectic speech: “Gaggle”, “Slack-mouthed”…
  • Journaling: Have students keep a journal of what they think of the book, or keep a periodic journal of their own life similar to the book.
  • Perspective: Have students adopt different characters’ perspectives, and have them re-do a chapter or scene.
  • Writing the next chapter: What happens next?

Theme and topic discussions:

  • Family: Do grandma and Mary Alice get along?
  • Archetypes: How are characters from the book similar to characters from other books/stories?
  • Judging: How does the book reinforce the idea to not judge people based on preconceptions?
  • Romance: Is the romance in the story similar to other stories, or important to the rest of the story?
  • Introduction: Introduce the book by asking students what sorts of situations they have been in where they have had to adapt to a new place.

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck attended College in at DePauw University in Indiana and in England at the University of Exeter. No stranger to historic and philosophical material, Peck spent some time as a “ghost writer” for sermons as a pastor’s assistant and U.S. Army Chaplain in Stuttgart, Germany. Following his tour of duty, he became a High School English teacher, an experience which he credits towards inspiring much of his work and helping him decide to become a writer. Currently, he writes full-time and has over 30 published novels.

Ever the classicist, Peck writes all his books on a typewriter, saying of his refusal to adopt technology that “it has to be a book from the first day.” An avid traveler, Peck writes both from his own experience and experiences he hears about from his readers and people whom he meets.


Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Author Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Additional Resources


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