Book review: The Best Man, by Richard Peck

Peck, Richard. The Best Man. Dial Books, 2016. HC. $16.99. ISBN 9780803738393.

Multi-award-winning author Peck was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois, where I lived and worked for 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s, so I always look forward to his new titles. I’m delighted to report that his latest wonderful novel, while aimed at a middle-school-aged readership, has much to say to all of us.

Young Archer is about to tackle the wilds of middle school in small-town Wisconsin, but he has strong male role models to help him through–his father, grandfather, and cool Uncle Paul: the kind of guys he’d love to be himself someday. As he and his quirky schoolmates all plunge into their sixth-grade cliques, their days are unexpectedly upended with the arrival of a student teacher–another cool dude, Mr. McLeod, who is perhaps an additional fellow for Archer to emulate.

Mr. McLeod turns out to be an excellent teacher and, in response to a bullying incident, he announces to the class that he’s gay: something unexpected for Archer and his fellow young adolescents to chew over.

But even more surprises await our main character. Down the road, he discovers that his beloved Uncle Paul is also gay and–one more thing–he and “Ed” McLeod are dating! How much more can Archer absorb when it comes to his heroes? Quite a lot, as it turns out, as we follow our endearing protagonist through his journey of pre-pubescent living and learning.

Peck does a wonderful job in depicting Archer’s hilarious school “culture”; his idiosyncratic classmates are memorably etched. What I found most significant about this novel, however, is the understated yet pointed way in which the LGBT content is interjected into the plot. Ed’s and Paul’s revelations, while obviously significant to Archer, do not arrive with blaring horns and shocked faces. Rather, they represent only part of Archer’s road to teenager-hood–one facet of the curious world around him, but not even necessarily the most important. After decades of stellar works for children and young adults, Peck’s authorial voice continues strong and relevant, as he offers his audiences entertaining and significant characters and themes.

This book is highly recommended for young people’s fiction collections. It should be shelved with pride alongside Richard Peck’s other indispensable titles, for thoughtful readers of all ages.

Cathy Ritchie

Materials & Collection Management

Dallas (TX) Public Library

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