Eve Bunting, a best-selling children’s author who invited young readers to revel in the joys of childhood but also helped them confront the grown-up world, exploring questions such as why an immigrant might leave home and why a soldier goes to war, died Oct. 1 at a hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 94.
The cause was pneumonia, said her daughter, Christine Bunting.
Mrs. Bunting grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland that had no library until her mother started a lending operation where neighbors could borrow a book, Mrs. Bunting recalled, for “tuppence.”
She grew up listening to the poetry of W.B. Yeats on her father’s knee, cultivating an ear for language and a heart for storytelling. She did not begin writing until she was in her early 40s, a little more than a decade after she and her husband settled in California with their three children.
Her first book, “The Two Giants” (1971), with illustrations by Eric Von Schmidt, introduced American readers to characters of Irish and Scottish legend. By the end of her career, she had published more than 250 books.
Mrs. Bunting wrote novels for young adults but was primarily known as an author of picture books — some of them delightful idylls, but many others stories that, as she put it, were intended to make young readers think.
In one of her most noted picture books, “The Wall” (1990), with illustrations by Ronald Himler, a man takes his son to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to find the name of the boy’s grandfather engraved among those of the dead.
The book “does not explain the war; it discusses our loss,” Walter Dean Myers, the young-adult author, wrote in a New York Times review. “It is a gentle book, filled with feeling and sympathy for those who served in Vietnam and for those who still feel their pain. A storybook … for very young children, it reminds adults of how necessary it is to understand what happened, so that it will not happen again.”
In another collaboration with Himler, “Fly Away Home” (1991), Mrs. Bunting told the story of a penniless father and son who make their home in the Chicago airport. When a bird becomes trapped in the terminal, the boy identifies with the creature and yearns for the day when he, too, might be able to fly away.
Mrs. Bunting had a special affinity for immigrant stories, both historical and modern-day. In her book “Dreaming of America” (1999), illustrated by Ben F. Stahl, she recorded the story of Annie Moore, an Irish teen who in 1892 became the first immigrant to enter the United States through Ellis Island.
In “A Day’s Work” (1994), illustrated by Himler, Mrs. Bunting explored the lives of migrant workers in California. “A Picnic in October” (1999), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, centers on a boy named Tony and his Italian American family’s annual visits to the Statue of Liberty.
Many of Mrs. Bunting’s picture books were long by the genre’s standards, beseeching children to sit with a grown-up and stay awhile to read. She insisted that children, with help, could and should face the realities of the world.
In “Smoky Night” (1994), whose illustrations by David Diaz received the Caldecott Medal, she offered a child’s view of the riots that exploded in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the White Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Black motorist Rodney King.
“I think the protection we can give [children] is the truth,” Mrs. Bunting told the publication NEA Today. “I think we have to try somehow to extend their understanding of the difficult problems we have. 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.”
She said, however, that children need “balance,” and in that spirit she wrote such whimsical volumes as “The Mother’s Day Mice” (1986), “Scary, Scary Halloween” (1986) and “Happy Birthday, Dear Duck” (1988), all illustrated by Jan Brett.
“There is no special secret to writing for all age levels,” Mrs. Bunting remarked. “You climb inside the head and the heart of the young person in your story. You think like that child. You feel like that child. You are that child.”
Anne Evelyn Bolton was born in Maghera, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 19, 1928. She was an only child. She described her father as a “big, rough, tough cattle-dealing man” whose exterior belied his love of poetry. Her mother worked in the post office.
Mrs. Bunting recalled her childhood as replete with pleasures, among them rainy days spent by the fire with a book. But it was also marked by the antagonisms in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Her parents, although Protestant, encouraged her to befriend a Catholic girl.
Mrs. Bunting studied at a boarding school and attended Queen’s University Belfast before marrying Edward Bunting in 1951. Seven years later, amid intensifying political and religious hostilities in Northern Ireland, they decided to join his brother in California, bringing with them their three young children.
“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 organization Reading Rockets.
While raising her children, Mrs. Bunting enrolled in a writing course at a community college and tried her hand as an author. Once she started, she said, she couldn’t stop. Her most recent book, “Alligators, Alligators,” with illustrations by Diane Ewen, was published last year.
Mrs. Bunting’s husband died in 2014. Besides her daughter, of Santa Cruz, survivors include two sons, Sloan Bunting of Pasadena, Calif., and Glenn Bunting of Pacific Palisades, Calif.; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
She said she endeavored to end her books not with a “happy-ever-after ending,” but with “hope for the future.”
She once received a letter from a boy who had read “Fly Away Home,” the picture book about the father and son living in the airport. In his letter, the boy recounted that he had been abused by his father. When his father went to prison, the boy identified with the bird in Mrs. Bunting’s book, who eventually escapes the confines of the airport and flies away.
For quite some time, the two maintained a correspondence. The boy would send her pictures of himself, Mrs. Bunting said, and she could see that he was free.