Born 12 May 1901, Pontiac, Illinois; died August 1979
Daughter of Franklin P. and Sarah Land Hunt
Irene Hunt grew up on the farm in southern Illinois that provided the setting for her Civil War novel, Across Five Aprils (1964). After her father died when she was seven, Hunt lived with her grandparents for five years. Her grandfather told many stories which later influenced her writing. For many years, Hunt taught French and English in Illinois public schools; she taught psychology briefly at the University of South Dakota. In her later years, she retired and moved to Florida.
Hunt's first novel, Across Five Aprils, was published when she was fifty-seven, after she had worked many years at her writing and accumulated many rejection slips. The novel received high critical acclaim, winning the Follett Award and being named the sole Newbery honor book of 1965 by the American Library Association. It was followed by Up a Road Slowly (1966), which received the Newbery Medal, among other honors.
A story of great emotional appeal, Across Five Aprils was suggested by family letters and records and the stories of Hunt's grandfather, who was a boy of nine at the beginning of the Civil War. Based on extensive research, it spans the five Aprils of 1861-65 to take the Creightons, a Southern Illinois farm family, through the war. Told from the point of view of nine-year-old Jethro, this tightly knit novel with its convincing, well-developed characters relates the problems the family faces when the sons enlist, one of them on the side of the South. Through experience and conversation, Jethro learns what the issues of the war are, and what it means to live in border country and be suspected of rebel leanings. Over the years, he gains in maturity and independence of judgement as he comes to realize there are two sides to every problem and that war is heartbreaking and divisive. Although no actual historical figures appear and historical events are recounted secondhand through letters and newspaper articles, Hunt conveys a good sense of the conflict and its effect on ordinary people.
Hunt's second novel, Up a Road Slowly, is a warm, sensitive, girl's growing-up story, taking Julie Trelling from her seventh to her seventeenth years. After the death of her mother, Julie goes to live with her Aunt Cordelia, a schoolteacher who has never married. She learns to cope with the loss of her mother, jealousy, first love, her aunt's strictness, and schoolgirl snobbishness as she matures into a gracious young woman, confident that she is ready for college and for whatever difficulties life may bring. The narrative is handled with restraint, and with the exception of the unconvincing Brett, Julie's temporary love, characters are deep and memorable, particularly the dignified, egotistical, alcoholic Uncle Haskell and the dirty, underprivileged, learning-impaired Aggie Kilpin. The story is fiction, but Up a Road Slowly, like Hunt's first novel, rose out of Hunt's own personal experiences.
Hunt's next novels, although direct and unpretentious in style like the first two books, are judged by critics to be thin in plot and superficial in characterization. Better received critically was William (1977), a moving, compassionate story set recently on the Gulf Coast of Florida about three orphaned black children who are cared for by a young white girl, the four together forming a warm, closely knit family group.
Although Hunt's earliest books are her best ones, all of them represent serious attempts to confront the problems of life in story form. They hold out the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, courage, compassion, integrity, and responsibility and stress the importance of education. In her Newbery acceptance speech, Hunt spoke of her motivations as a writer, gained from years of experience as a teacher and counselor. She has watched "books bring new dimensions of happiness, of confidence and enlightenment, to young people from the age of three up.… Children are not created fully equipped with such values as courage, compassion, integrity, and insights into the motives and needs of themselves and others. These attributes are often learned from the behavior of the characters who people the books they read… A fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly—there is the effective substitute for…ineffective [adult] sermons."
A Trail of Apple Blossoms (1968). No Promises in the Wind (1970).
CA (1976). More Books by More People (1974). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1966-1975 (1975). SAA (1971). Third Book of Junior Authors (1972).
LJ (15 March 1967).
—ALETHEA K. HELBIG