Eve Bunting, 94, Dies; Tackled Adult Themes in Children’s Books

Eve Bunting, who published her first children’s book when she was 43 and wrote some 250 more over the next 50 years — retelling whimsical fables from her native Northern Ireland and gently introducing her very young readers to grown-up subjects like war, racial prejudice and homelessness — died on Oct. 1 in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 94.

Her daughter, Christine, said her death, in a hospital, was caused by pneumonia.

Mrs. Bunting, who worked with many celebrated illustrators and won a number of prestigious awards, described herself as the modern equivalent of the shanachie, the traditional Gaelic storyteller who went from house to house regaling listeners with legends. One of those legends inspired her first book, “The Two Giants,” which was published in 1971 after she submitted it to a publisher on her own, without an agent.

Her trajectory as a storyteller began when she entertained her fellow students at a girls’ boarding school and ended when she read to the oldest of her great-grandchildren — and when she completed her final book, “Alligators, Alligators,” illustrated by Diane Ewen, which was published this August.

In between, she won the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for “One More Flight” (1976); the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery from the Mystery Writers of America for “Coffin on a Case” (1991); and the Regina Medal in 1997 from the Catholic Library Association for “continued, distinguished contribution to children’s literature.”

Her “Smoky Night” (1994), illustrated by David Diaz, was awarded the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for an illustrated children’s book. The American Library Association said its “language and illustration convey the universal importance of human interaction through the personal story of one little boy and his cat” during the Los Angeles riots that followed the 1991 beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by police officers who were later acquitted of using excessive force.

Her 2006 book “One Green Apple” won the inaugural Arab American Book Award for books written for children and young adults.

Among her other books were “Fly Away Home” (1991), illustrated by Ronald Himler, about a homeless father and son living in an airport terminal, and “The Wall” (1990), another collaboration with Mr. Himler, in which a man and his son visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, looking for the name of the boy’s grandfather among the dead.

Reviewing “The Wall” in The New York Times, the young-adult author Walter Dean Myers said that it “does not explain the war” but rather “discusses our loss.”

“It is a gentle book, filled with feeling and sympathy for those who served in Vietnam and for those who still feel their pain,” he wrote — a storybook for very young children that “reminds adults of how necessary it is to understand what happened, so that it will not happen again.”

In “The Wall” (1990), Ms. Bunting wrote about a man and his son who visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and look for the name of the boy’s grandfather among the dead.Credit…via HarperCollins

Mrs. Bunting said “The Wall” required three years of thinking and one week to write. A 1992 episode of the PBS series Reading Rainbow” inspired by the book won a Peabody Award.

Her young-adult novel “Spying on Miss Muller” (1995), was inspired by her own life. She also wrote an autobiography, “Once Upon a Time,” published that same year.

Anne Evelyn Bolton was born on Dec. 19, 1928, in Maghera, a small town in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, to Protestant parents. Her father, Sloan Edmund Bolton, was a cattle dealer whose rough exterior belied his love of poetry. Her mother, Mary (Canning), Bolton, was the local postmistress. The couple established a lending library in the post office.

From age 7 to age 18, Eve, as she was known, attended boarding school at Methodist College Belfast, where, her daughter said, she “always knew she had a bit of a writing gift.”

“In school,” she added, “she used to write schoolmates’ essays in trade for their wartime ‘sweeties rations.’”

After graduating in 1945, Eve enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast, where she met a fellow student, Edward Bunting. They married in 1951; he died in 2014.

In addition to their daughter, she is survived by two sons, Sloan and Glenn Bunting; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. She had been living in a care facility in Santa Cruz for the last two years.

In 1958, the couple and their three children moved to Northern California, where Edward’s brother was living, to escape the sectarian violence in Belfast, the dodgy economy and the rain. While raising her family, she took a writing course at Pasadena City College. She became a United States citizen in 1969.

“I think that’s why I can write with feeling about so many immigrants to this country, because I was one, and I know what that means wherever you come from,” Mrs. Bunting said in an interview with the literacy program Reading Rockets.

Speaking about her book “Ghost of Summer” (1977), which takes place in contemporary Northern Ireland, she told Junior Library Guild, “I tried to write a story that children would find exciting but that would also show them the insidious horror of prejudice and the tragedy of a people torn apart by old hatreds.”

She added: “I tried to be objective, to be fair in showing both sides of the Irish problem. I hope no child reading it will know if the author is Protestant or Catholic. I hope no child reading it will care. I put into ‘Ghost of Summer’ the feelings I have for Ireland; the love and the sorrow.”

“Going Home” (1997) is a story of migrant workers shuttling between California and Mexico.Credit…via HarperCollins

Reviewing “Going Home” (1997), a story of migrant workers shuttling between California and Mexico that was illustrated by Mr. Diaz, the author and editor Kathleen Krull wrote in The Times that “the narrative never loses sight for a second of what this all means to a small child, and the ultimate underlying message is one promoting tolerance and understanding, a common Eve Bunting theme.”

In “The Cart That Carried Martin” (2014), illustrated by Don Tate, Mrs. Bunting explored the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the battered, mule-drawn wagon that carried his coffin.

“The cart was not heavy,” she wrote. “The coffin was not heavy. The man inside it was not heavy. His great spirit had been the heaviest part of him. It could not be kept in a coffin.” When the wagon passes, someone asks, “Is it over?” The response is, “It will never be over.”

Speaking to NEA Today, a publication of the National Education Association, Mrs. Bunting said that the best way to protect children from the harsh realities of life, be they race riots, assassinations, war or poverty, is by telling them the truth.

“I think we have to try somehow to extend their understanding of the difficult problems we have,” she said. “Children can deal with the truth if they have a caring person to help them try to understand it. I don’t want to write down to children at any age.”

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