One of the most compelling story openings I know in young adult literature comes from Richard Peck’s, Ghosts I Have Been:
“I tell you the world is so full of ghosts, a person wonders if there’s a soul to be found on the Other Side. Or anybody snug in a quiet grave. I’ve seen several haunts, and been one myself.”
When I heard Richard Peck speak of his work at a local Borders, someone asked how many times he rewrote his opening paragraphs. “Probably seventy times, on average,” he said. Such dedication to craft is one reason Peck’s career spans more than 39 years, includes 39 novels, a Newbery Medal, and the National Humanities Medal.
Of the many other reasons for Peck’s success, one of the most notable is his unforgettable characters. Peck writes about outsiders, and the heroine of Ghosts, by circumstance and choice goes her own way:
“There are girls in this town who pass their time up on their porches doing fancywork on embroidery hoops. You can also see them going about in surreys or on the back seats of autos with their mothers, paying calls in white gloves. They’re all as alike as gingerbread figures in skirts. I was never one of them. My name is Blossom Culp, and I’ve always lived by my wits.”
Peck, who believes that “a novel must entertain first before it can be anything else,” leads his heroine through episodes both side-splittingly funny and tragic. Blossom’s friend Alexander Farnsworth (not that she’s sweet on him, she assures us) has fallen in with a rough crowd, who plan to go outhouse-tipping on Halloween night, 1913. She teams up with Old Man Leverette so save his privy. As the boys begin to push at the structure, Blossom, dressed as a ghost, jumps out:
“The candle flickered and guttered between my white veil and [Alexander’s] suddenly white face. His arms fell from the door jamb, and he let out the high whinny of a fire-crazed horse…He keeled backwards and fell flat on the ground. ‘A HAUNT! I AM CURSED!’ he screamed and lay on his back like a turned turtle, with his fists jammed into his eyes.”
That’s only the start of the night’s trouble for the vandals, for Old Man Leverette is hiding nearby, his shotgun loaded with rocksalt. Blossom has a talent for righting wrongs and what is imbalanced. Declaring that there is more to be learned on the wrong side of the tracks than the right, she next takes on the “mean girls” of the town, members of the exclusive “Sunny Thoughts and Busy Fingers,” club.