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Transcript from an interview with Eve Bunting

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Eve Bunting. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Eve Bunting

Irish poetry

Being home for the vacations was wonderful for me, because both my mother and father were readers. My father particularly was. He was a rough, tough, gruff, old Irishman who was extremely macho, even though we didn't know that word. He wore those plus-fours, but I think you call them knickers here – you know, the pants that go halfway down your legs – and the checked socks and the brown brogues and the duncher cap. And he would stand out in the street and talk to his cronies, and they would talk about cattle and sheep and the price of grain.

But when he was at home, he read poetry. And he would've died if any of them knew that. But he read, especially the Irish poets. He loved Yeats. He loved all the Irish poets. And he inoculated me with poetry from as far back as I can remember.

You know, it rains a lot in Ireland, and lots of times we'd sit in the house by the big turf fire. And he would take me on his lap and read to me. He would stop now and then when it would maybe be a little difficult. And he would say, "Now, my darlin', do ya understand that? What's the poet trying to say?" And we would talk about it.

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It was red-haired Annie!

Unfortunately, in our little town we didn't have a great deal of access to books. We didn't have a library. So, my mother decided at one point that that wasn't fair either to her or to all the other inhabitants of Maghera. So, she decided she was going to start a lending library. And to do this, she contacted Belfast, our big city, and I don't know how she did it, but she found a lending library that she could bring to Maghera. For tuppence a book, people could take out books that they wanted to read. So, it was great excitement. My father built her shelves along our hallway, and all these books were arranged. It was heavenly for me on vacations, because I could go along and pick out forbidden books. I would actually take them secretly up to bed with me.

But my mother's library venture did not last very long, because she wasn't a practical businesswoman. She was so happy to have everybody reading these great books that she would just pass them out without writing down who took them or where they were. So, they diminished and diminished and diminished. The shelves got emptier and emptier, and she would meet someone on the street – maybe red-haired Annie – and she would say, "Annie, didn't I lend you one of my books?"

"Oh, no, no, no. I don't have one of your books. Oh, if I had your book, as God is my witness, I would have brought it back to you."

Well, then, we would go for a walk, and we would walk past Annie's house, and her half-door would be open, and we'd look in, and there would be two or three of my mother's books propping up legs of beds and legs of couches and everything else. So, that was a little bit of a failure.

But it's a great memory that I have.

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Moving to California

So, Ed, my husband, had a brother in California, and he had been in Australia. He is a civil engineer. He'd lived in Australia, he'd lived in Canada, and he'd lived in New Zealand. He had lived in South America. He wrote us and said, "You know, California is the best place I've ever lived." He lived up in the bay area in San Francisco, and he said, "Why don't you just pack up and come?"

Well, that's a very hard thing to do, especially when you're not coming to a job. You don't have any money. You have three, small children. I know lots of people do it, and 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.

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Books that heal the world

I've written a lot of books now – and once I got started, I couldn't stop, even though little kids write to me and say, "You're pretty old now. When are you going to stop?" I don't think I'll ever stop.

Mostly, I write picture books, because that's my favorite genre to write. I love to write picture books, and I love to write picture books for the older child, that can also be read and used by adults and teachers in classrooms. And that has happened for me. I've had university professors write to me and say, "I use your book in my classroom." Some of my picture books are very serious, like The Wall, which is about a father and son going to the Vietnam wall to find the grandfather's name. And it's from the heart, and I can't read it aloud myself without crying, so I don't ever try to read that one on a podium.

Or, one about the homeless that I wrote called Fly Away Home, about a boy and his father living in the Chicago airport, existing there and nowhere else to go, nowhere to live, no job. At the end of my books, I always try to have not a happy ever after thing, but hope for the future. And in that book, the boy identifies with a bird that is trapped in the airport. The door opens, and the bird flies free, and the boy can identify with that bird and know that some day that will happen for him.

I had an interesting experience with that book in that a boy wrote to me, and he had read that book 30 times. He had been abused by his father, who was now in jail. He wrote to me and said that when they put him in jail, "You know what happened? Then I was free, free, free." Now he still sends me pictures of himself. I know he's okay now, because he's got dyed, yellow, spiky hair, and he plays a trombone. So, I figure he's made it through.

But children have voted that book their Heal the World Award in their classroom, and that's a wonderful award to get, more meaningful than a lot of big, important awards that you might get.

Then I do for-fun books for kids, too, like The Mother's Day Mice and The Valentine Bears and Happy Birthday, Dear Duck – just books for entertainment, because I think there needs to be a balance there for children – although I have to say that I get most of my letters from my serious books, because they seem to touch the children in the way that they've touched me when I began to write them.

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Smoky Night

When my book Smoky Night, which was about the riots in Los Angeles, came out, there was quite a lot of controversy about that book. It was a theme that a lot of even librarians, teachers and parents didn't think should be talked about to kids – riots. And it's not a pleasant subject, but on the other hand, it's a reality. It's a truth. It's what happened, and, God forbid, but could happen again.

So, the letters I get from the kids on that show me that they know what I was trying to do and what I was trying to say, because that was a book that on one level was about the riots; but on another level it was saying, "Reach out to somebody who's not like you, and you may find that you don't hate them, that you really can be friends." And kids get that. Kids write to me and tell me they get that, and they even say, "I think you wrote two stories here. You told about the riots, and you told about being friends." So, I think that it's good to do that. I feel it's good to do it, and I don't want to feel any restrictions on me to do that.

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"I know what you went through"

I always feel that way about immigrants. I look at them, and I think, "I know what you went through" – in a different way, but in such a similar way. Going Home is about the migrant workers. As you go up through Central California, you see them on each side of you as go up there. I interviewed them, went and saw their homes – they were so lovely to me. And it was always that they want to go home. They're here for the opportunities for their children. They're here to make money to send home. They're here, and they come here in difficult ways, the same as in How Many Days to America, where those were boat people who came. They come to look for a better life, and I can absolutely relate to that. And I hope I write it with the feeling I have about it, because I know how hard it is. Harder for them than for me, admittedly; but, still, I understand.

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Local author: Eve Bunting

You know, Maghera has a wonderful library, because it's gotten so much bigger. It's a town now, not a village, and they have a brand new library that's subsidized by the government, I guess. They've got lots of money and lots of money for books. It's really a joy. My mother would have been so thrilled with that library.

They have their whole wall that has my books on the shelves. And above it there's a banner, and it says, "LOCAL AUTHOR – EVE BUNTING." Even though I haven't lived there for all these years, I'm still their "local author."

And when I go there, you know, they bring me flowers; and the children present them to me. It's very nice.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943