February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Award-Winning YA Author Mal Peet Dies at 67

Mal-Peet-corrAuthor Mal Peet, known for both his award-winning YA novels and the children’s books he cowrote and illustrated with his wife Elspeth Graham, died March 2 at 67.

While Peet was a relative latecomer to the world of children’s and YA literature, he made a splash with his first novel, Keeper (Walker, 2003), garnering acclaim on both sides of the pond. The book won Britain’s Nestlé Smarties Bronze Prize and the Brandford Boase and was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. Described as “Unusual and compelling” by SLJ, Keeper is the story of a South American soccer player who, having just won the World Cup, relates how the guidance he received from a strange, ghostlike trainer resulted in his talent and prowess on the field.

Peet quickly proved that Keeper was no fluke; in 2005, he followed it up with Tamar (Walker, 2005), which won England’s coveted Carnegie Medal. Set in the Netherlands during the Nazi Occupation, the novel focuses on two Dutch soldiers involved with the resistance. Told from the perspective of the 15-year-old granddaughter of one of the soldiers, this rich work ties together different narratives, with “intense and riveting” results, according to SLJ.

Nuance and originality were hallmarks of his other YA fiction as well. Exposure (Walker, 2008), which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, drew from two seemingly unlikely sources: a tabloid story on David and Victoria Beckham and Shakespeare’s Othello. Peet successfully imbued the lives of his characters—a South American soccer star and a pop singer—with Shakespearean levels of tragedy.

Peet’s work was praised by those in the library community, who appreciated his complex and intricate approach. Jonathan Hunt, county schools librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education and an SLJ blogger, emphasized Peet’s immense talent and innovation. “Mal Peet wrote crossover books for sophisticated young adults and young-at-heart adults. His work is characterized by masterful prose, witty humor, and a keen interest in race and class.”

Born in 1947 in Norfolk, England, to a working-class family, Peet found escape from the dullness of his small-town life through his love of cycling, soccer, and literature. As a child, he hoped to become a soccer player and a cartoonist—dreams he would partially realize through his soccer-focused novels and his illustrated books for children.

After obtaining both a BA and an MA from the University of Warwick, he attempted to support himself by drawing cartoons. When this didn’t work out, he made several other failed career attempts, which took him all over the world, from picking grapes in France to laying tarmac in Canada.

Shortly before turning 40, he married Graham, who inspired him to enter the realm of children’s books. Together, the two began to write and illustrate, going on to produce more than 100 works aimed at students and teachers for use in the classroom, including A Bird in the Bush and The Wolf Whistle (both Oxford University Pr., 2000).

The author was remembered fondly not only for his literary prowess but for his vibrant personality. Peet’s editor Liz Bicknell, executive editorial director and associate publisher at Candlewick Press, told SLJ, “I’ve spent the morning looking at our more-than-a-decade-long correspondence. Peppered with colorful language, it’s the way excited working-class Brits talk to one another, and in that, Mal and I were kindred spirits.”

Bicknell shared a particularly memorable message from Peet, describing his reaction to the news that she was making an offer on The Murdstone Trilogy (Candlewick, 2014), his first adult novel, a satirical look at the publishing industry: “Thanks, darlin’, and WOW: you liked it that much, huh? I’m utterly delighted. Peter Cox [his agent] is getting some lively interest from film and TV, so now I shall have to keep my fingers crossed on both hands, which makes typing difficult.”

“Even when we talked about his illness last month, he was funny and irreverent,” Bicknell said. “That was his way, and I got it. I can’t bear that I’ll never hear him call me darling again or say something was ‘bloody brilliant,’ but of course my loss is small compared to his family’s, especially his gorgeous wife Elspeth Graham.”

“Mal was an exquisite writer and a fabulous person,” Bicknell shared. “I loved his work, and I loved him.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.