Bunting writes about everything, but Ireland is her love

July 19, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

In a day and age when its extremely difficult for a new writer to get published, Eve Bunting's track record is amazing. This Southern California grandmother has written 168 picture books and chapter books for young adults.

Bunting came to my attention in a short piece she wrote for a book called "Down to Earth," a 1998 collection of stories and memoirs loosely about gardening, written and illustrated by children's book writers and artists. Bunting wrote about picking yellow primroses:

"When I was 9, I lived in Ireland and went to boarding school. I went home for vacation on the creaky, slow train that stopped at every little town. In spring the banks that bordered the tracks were covered with pale yellow primroses. At each stop I'd jump off, climb the bank and nip off some flowers."

Bunting went to boarding school in Ireland and I went to boarding school in England, but we both have memories involving primroses. When I was 15, I spent a spring half-term alone at the school, which was otherwise empty except for the headmaster and his family. A boy I liked came to visit me and we walked over to a friend's house several miles away. We walked cross-country, through wild fields and down back lanes farther and farther away from the school. At first I found primroses hidden under the bushes but as we walked deeper into the country we came upon hills carpeted in primroses. It was a wonderful day.

So I had to call Ms. Bunting.

She spent 10 years, from age 7 to age 17, in a boarding school near Belfast.

"Even when I was in boarding school I loved to write," she said. "I would write essays for other students. But I think back on the food and wonder how we survived."

She doesn't play favorites with her books, but does like the ones that feature an Irish setting. She recommended I read "Spying on Miss Muller" (1995) a book for young adults that takes place in a Belfast boarding school during World War II. It was a good recommendation.

The story is about Jessie and her favorite teacher - the half-Irish, half-German Miss Muller. Jessie sees Miss Muller walking through the darkened school building at night - the same night the Germans bomb Belfast. Is Miss Muller a spy? Jessie and her friends decide to find out what Miss Muller is up to and the damaging answer surprises everyone.

Bunting still speaks with a touch of an Irish accent even though she and her husband, Edward, left Northern Ireland nearly 40 years ago with their three children. Their decision to move to America was a difficult one and at first it was a hard adjustment, but now Bunting describes herself as "a real flag-waver." Still, her voice softens when she recalls her childhood in Ireland.

When her own children were grown and Bunting found herself established in America but at loose ends, she decided to take a class.

"I was desperately looking for something to do in about 1974," she said. "I took a class at a junior college on writing for publication and I began writing and selling almost immediately.

"I write all my stories by hand," she said. "This led to the growth of a tumor the size of a bird's egg on my right hand," she added. (I called her the night before she was to have surgery and she later told me that she is recovering completely but it's awkward to write with her hand bandaged.)

Bunting has developed a reputation of writing picture books that focus on important issues. Perhaps this came about because she's quite aware that most children don't have idyllic childhoods.

"I like picture books with a lot of meaning," she said. She's written books about the temptation kids have to join gangs ("Your Move") and the boat people ("How Many Days to America?"), about veterans of the Vietnam War and their families ("The Wall"), and about a homeless boy who lives in a big-city airport ("Fly Away Home").

"These books are dear to me because they touch children," she said. "I get so many letters from children, 70 to 75 a month, and I try to answer all their letters with love and commonsense."

Bunting's connection with Ireland paid off in a huge and unexpected way in 1996 when she wrote a young adult book called "SOS Titanic." She was always impressed by the tragic story of the Titanic because so many of the third-class passengers were Irish immigrants. When the movie came out, sales of her book jumped at one point to 10,000 a month.

Still, there are some subjects that she will never write about. Schoolyard shootings, the deaths of children by children, is one such topic.

"I cannot touch a book about shootings," she said. "I don't see anyway to do it."

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