The American novelist Irene Hunt was born on May 18, 1907, in Pontiac, Illinois, to Franklin and Sarah Hunt. When Hunt was six weeks old the family moved to Newton, Illinois, a town that features in her Civil War novel Across Five Aprils. Her father died there in 1914, and she moved with her mother to her grandparents’ farm nearby. She enjoyed listening to her grandfather’s recollections of his childhood during the Civil War, and was later to use many of these stories in Across Five Aprils.
She was educated at the University of Illinois, Urbana, from where she graduated with a BA in 1939, and at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, from which she earned an MA in 1946. She also did postgraduate work at the University of Colorado, Boulder. From 1930 to 1945 she taught English and French in schools in Oak Park, Illinois. From 1946 to 1950 she taught psychology at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion. In 1950 she returned to teaching in schools in Cicero, Illinois, and in 1965 was made the director of language arts in that school system. She retired from this post in 1969 and devoted herself to writing.
Hunt’s literary reputation rests on her historical novels, which are immaculately researched and filled with contemporary detail, and are aimed at young readers. According to Philip A. Sadler in his essay “Irene Hunt” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Volume 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, edited by Glenn E. Estes, The Gale Group, 1986, pp. 202–208), Hunt said, “While teaching social studies to junior high school students, I felt that teaching history through literature was a happier, more effective process.”
Across Five Aprils appeared in 1964 and was given the Charles W. Follett Award by its publishers, Follett, in that year. In 1965 it was the sole runner-up for the Newbery Medal and won the Clara Ingram Judson Award and the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. In 1966 it won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, which is given to books considered “worthy to sit on a shelf with Alice in Wonderland,” and an American Library Association Notable Book citation. Hunt’s next book, a novel for teenagers called Up a Road Slowly (1966), won the Newbery Medal in 1967 and was placed on the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Honor List in 1970. In 1980 Hunt was awarded the Certificate in Recognition of Contribution to Children's Literature at the Twelfth Annual Children's Literature Festival at Central Missouri State University.
Trail of Apple Blossoms, an illustrated novel about the American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, appeared in 1968. Hunt's fourth novel, No Promises in the Wind (1970), recounts the story of two boys during the Depression years. It won a Friends of Literature Award and Charles W. Follett Award in 1971. The Lottery Rose, the story of an abused child, was published in 1976 and met with mixed reviews. Hunt’s next novel, William (1977), marked a return to form, telling the story of a fatherless black boy and a pregnant white girl who lives next door. Claws of a Young Century, a novel about women’s rights and the suffrage movement, was published in 1980. Hun’t last novel, The Everlasting Hills (1985), examines her favorite theme of family relationships, again in the Depression years.
Hunt died on May 18, 2001, in Savoy, Illinois, on her 94th birthday. Her work continues to earn critical acclaim, with her storytelling skills, realistic characterization, and simple yet poetic language being singled out for praise. Her novels have been widely translated and have sold successfully in countries across the world.
Across Five Aprils: Biography: Irene Hunt