A talk with Eve Bunting
From the Titanic to ancient Egypt
Eve Bunting wants to spread an important message: picture books aren't just for tots anymore.
As the author of more than 150 books, Bunting has written something for every age group -- everything from young adult novels to picture books, on subjects ranging from homelessness (Fly Away Home), a modern-day look at a Civil War battlefield (The Blue and the Gray), the Irish village of Maghera where she was born (Market Day), and Smoky Night, about the Los Angeles riots, illustrated by David Diaz and winner of a Caldecott Medal.
Plenty of Bunting's books are pure fun and joy, such as Sunflower House, Scary, Scary Halloween, Dog Detective, or the forthcoming Ducky, about a yellow plastic duck. Bunting notes, however, that titles addressing what she calls "tender topics" such as poverty and racial prejudice seem to get the most attention from reviewers and readers.
"Editors are brave," she says. "I may have had books turned down because they're not good, but I've never had one turned down because it was saying something some people might consider not suitable for children."
The roots of her social consciousness date back to her childhood in Ireland. "I was aware that there was discrimination," she recalls, "although I didn't know there was anything to be done about it." She remembers that Protestant children like herself weren't supposed to play with Catholics, although her parents encouraged her friendship with a Catholic girl. Later, political and religious "troubles" between the two denominations helped convince Bunting and her husband to emigrate to the United States in 1958 with their three young children.
"We had it pretty hard at the beginning," Bunting says of their move. "At least we spoke the same language. But I do feel I'm entitled to write about migrant workers and immigrants."
Success came to the young Irish mother a few years after the family settled in California, where she continues to live. Feeling homesick and in need of diversion, she enrolled in a community college course in creative writing.
Her first published books were retellings of Irish folk tales. Since then she's branched out in diverse directions, even writing a few nonfiction books about whales and sharks for Sea World in San Diego. The nonfiction work was an exception -- Bunting's chief interest is "telling a good story." She begins to write after an idea hits her with a "jolt."
Despite her many interests and concerns, however, some subjects are too much for her. For instance, when one editor confided that she'd like to have a picture book about child abuse, Bunting replied, "I just couldn¹t because my stomach wouldn't allow me to do that." And when a parent asked her to write about the Oklahoma bombing, Bunting said she couldn't tackle the tragedy.
How, then, do ideas jolt her? Recently, inspiration struck in a San Jose museum, where Bunting's daughter had taken her to see a mummy collection, a subject that had long been of interest. "I remember looking at one mummy and thinking, 'Once you were beautiful.' That was the beginning of an idea."
The fruit of the extensive research that followed is I Am the Mummy HEB-NEFERT, illustrated by David Christiana. This picture book with spare, lyrical text is a prime example of one written for older children, ages 7-12. Heb-Nefert, whose name means "beautiful dancer," tells the story of a mummy¹s life and death, how the woman once was the adored wife of a pharaoh's brother and how she came to lie wrapped in ancient linen, under glass in a museum, for all to see.
"When I finished," Bunting recalls, "I asked my editor if we'd get into trouble for saying to young people that you too will die. She said, 'What's wrong with that?' "
Bunting tells Heb-Nefert's tale so convincingly that a Canadian publisher and Egyptologist told Bunting that she must have lived in Egypt in a previous life. "She was absolutely serious," Bunting says. "She said that book is written as though you were living there and you knew every detail. I told the publisher that while I was writing, I was.
"I've led a few lives in my time," Bunting adds, laughing. One was aboard a sinking ship, as evidenced by her novel SOS Titanic, inspired by a visit to the Belfast Museum of Transport. Her husband's father and uncle both worked in the shipyard where the ocean liner was built. At the museum, a commemorative exhibit helped Bunting and other visitors feel as though they were in lifeboats, gazing at the sinking ship.
"I stood there and watched that ship in its death throe," Bunting recalls. "I felt almost as if I had been there. It was breathtaking. I started writing the book while I was still visiting Ireland."
Although many such endeavors require meticulous research, surprisingly, Bunting calls herself "an unstructured person." "My files are a mess," she confesses. "I always have a moment's panic when someone asks me to find something. And I'm not structured about my working habits, not at all. . . . I don't have set hours for work. I don't really make myself work if I don't want to. Fortunately for me," she adds, "I usually want to."
Her favorite format is the picture book. "My daughter says that's because I like instant gratification," she says, "and maybe that's true. I love to be able to say what I want to say succinctly."
And say it she does, with such productivity that it's difficult to keep track of each book. Also new this spring is Bunting's On Call Back Mountain. A collaboration with National Book Award-winning painter Barry Moser, it is the story of two boys who live with their parents at the foot of a mountain with a fire tower and their friend Bosco, an old man who returns each summer to work as lookout in the tower. The story of their friendship, of looking for wolves that have disappeared after a forest fire a few years ago, and of Bosco's sudden death is both realistic and a beautiful credit to the human spirit. Bunting's words and Moser's art capture the emotional rhythm of the story in an unforgettable combination.
One of several forthcoming will be a Christmas story called December, published by Harcourt Brace and another collaboration with David Diaz, which Bunting says Diaz describes as "his best work yet."
As for her own achievements, the ever-modest Bunting says, "I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," she says. "My success has been a constant surprise. I often think 'How can all these things happen to this little kid from Maghera?' "
Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.