Bunting, E. (2008). Walking to school. (M. Dooling, Illus.) New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 978-0-618-26144-4 (Grades 1-6)
Review Word Count: 495
Allison, eight years old, dreads the second day of school. She used to admire her blazer, which displays the crest of the same Catholic girls’ school her mother attended, but she no longer looks forward to putting it on. She is more interested in carrying her favorite possession, a lucky tiger’s eye marble.
Walking to School takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a time which marks decades of religious and political conflict between Catholic and Protestant Irish dating from the 1960s onward.
Allison’s uncle is supposed to help protect Allison from the Protestants who live on Drummond Street who make loud noises, “shou[t] stuff [Allison doesn’t] want to hear,” spit on the passing Catholics, and hold sticks, which they are “only” waving, “[s]o far.” However, Allison is also afraid of her uncle, who she suspects has been involved in violent acts against other Catholics who have associated with Protestants. Allison observes that he “look[s] forward to what may happen” during their walk, while she dreads it.
She is unwilling to let go of her lucky marble during the walk down Drummond Street, and someone rips a brass button off of Allison’s school blazer, which rolls away from her. As an unnamed Protestant girl picks up the button, Allison assumes that she “wants a Catholic souvenir,” but the girl crawls toward Allison and offers to return it to her. In a brief exchange, the girl confesses her mother made her come, and she “hate[s] this” fighting as much as Allison does. Reaching away from her mother and uncle, Allison gives the girl her lucky marble before she is pulled away, and the girls exchange “secret” waves. After finding friendship in the midst of conflict, Allison questions her uncle’s labeling of the Protestant girl as “the enemy,” and of her teacher calling her Catholic students “Irish heroes.”
There are limited texts for children on the topic of the Troubles, and this story by Eve Bunting, who grew up a Protestant during this turbulent time, serves as a good introduction for young readers. Told from the perspective of the child Allison, Walking to Schoolapproaches the national conflict on a personal scale. Although a short author’s note is included with the text, it provides only broad information regarding the scope of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and for background reading on the conflict itself, parents and teachers will need to look elsewhere.
Oil paintings by Michael Dooling enhance the emotional effect of the text through use of a dark palette of colors while maintaining an almost photographic realism, particularly in characters’ facial expressions. The paintings also help provide a date for the story. The Troubles in Northern Ireland span decades, but a specific date is not noted in the text. Dooling’s paintings hint at a date in the late 1990s through the fashion of certain children’s coats, and more notably, through the presence of a “Ghostface” mask which became popularized after the 1996 film Scream.