Eloise Greenfield, an award-winning writer whose dozens of works have helped expand children’s literature so that young African Americans can see themselves, their history and their hopes in the pages of their picture books, has died at the age 92.
Greenfield has spent most of her life in Washington, where as a child she was lost in the piles of the public library and where she began to write her own books in her spare time as a clerk at the United States Patent Office in the 1960s.
A mother of two, she made it her mission to help correct the shortcomings of the children’s literary canon, in which African Americans were often invisible or demeaned by racist images and stereotypes.
“I wanted my books to allow black children to realize how beautiful and intelligent they are,” Greenfield said. Washington informant. “I wanted to write books that inspire and uplift them, that make them laugh and be happy.”
Over half a century, Greenfield has written over 40 picture books, novels, biographies and collections of poetry. In 2018, the American Library Association awarded her the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing her as “a pioneer whose extraordinary books of poetry and prose have influenced many and continue to resonate with children today ”.
The first mainstream full-color picture book featuring an African-American child is widely regarded as the award-winning volume of the Caldecott Medal Snow day (1962), written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, who was white. After enduring rejection after rejection, Greenfield made his book-authoring debut 10 years later with Bubbles, the story of a young black child who learns to read.
Bubbles, a picture book with illustrations by Eric Marlow, was published in 1972 by Drum and Spear Press, a Washington publishing house founded by former civil rights activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Other publishers, Greenfield said, had rejected his submissions with the slanted explanation that “that’s not quite what we want.”
“During the period when black writers were rejected, some editors denied that race was a factor in these rejections,” she said. The Washington Post in 1991. “They said they were not getting any well-written manuscripts.”
Over time, Greenfield became so popular that she was able to give up her job in government and devote herself to writing full time. At one point, she had at least 10 volumes printed at HarperCollins Children’s Books, a rarity in the notoriously competitive publishing industry.
Greenfield argued that children’s literature should not curl up in the face of dangers and sorrows children face in real life. In his book Grandmother’s joy (1980), illustrated by Carole Byard, an orphan consoles her desperate grandmother, who can no longer pay the rent on the house they share. Night on the neighborhood street (1991), a collection of poems illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, included a line called “The Salesman”, about children who “see behind” the “easy smile” of a drug dealer and run around their homes, where they find “warmth / and life”.
But the dominant themes of his work were hopeful. “I think the body of literature should reflect us as we are,” said Greenfield. “When we say realism, a lot of people automatically think of the negative side, and joy is just as realistic as pain.”
In Nathaniel speaks (1988), illustrated by Gilchrist, Greenfield introduced readers to the lyrical wisdom of nine-year-old Nathaniel B Free, who philosophizes on the cadence of rap: “It’s Nathaniel who speaks / and Nathaniel is me / I speak of / my philosophy / About the things I do / And the people I see / Said everything in the words / From Nathaniel B Free.
In Dream of Africa (1977), illustrated by Byard, Greenfield took readers on what a To post the reviewer described it as “a magic carpet ride for the whole kindergarten, a trip to Africa not to be missed.” Another noted volume of poetry was Honey i love (1978), first illustrated by award-winning artists Diane and Leo Dillon.
Greenfield said she seeks to give children a sense of history in works such as Childtimes: a memory of three generations (1979), which she co-wrote with her mother, Lessie Jones Little, and in volumes including The Great Migration: Journey to the North (2011) and Women Who Caught Babies: A Story of African American Midwives (2019). She has written biographies of famous African Americans, including civil rights activist Rosa Parks, educator and women’s rights advocate Mary McLeod Bethune, artist Paul Robeson and basketball star Michael Jordan.
“It is necessary that black children have a true knowledge of their past and present,” she once said, “so that they can develop an enlightened sense of the direction of their future.”
Eloise Glynn Little was born in Parmele, North Carolina on May 17, 1929. She was just a baby when her family moved to Washington, where her mother and father worked for the government. She grew up in the Langston Terrace housing project, studying the piano and absorbing her parents’ love of literature, and graduated from Cardozo High School in 1946.
Greenfield escaped the boredom of his job at the patent office with his handwriting. His first publication, a poem, appeared in the Hartford Times of Connecticut in 1962. After trying and failing to find a publisher for her stories, “I decided I didn’t have that talent and that I would think of something else to do,” she said. Finally, she added, “I learned to expect refusals.”
Her marriage to Robert Greenfield ended in separation. Besides their daughter, the survivors include a son, two sisters, a brother, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Greenfield said she often worked on her manuscripts overnight and into the wee hours of the morning, allowing herself to be transported back to her childhood as she created the characters for her books and verses.
The poem “Keepsake”, published in Honey i love, was taken from her memory of the death of a beloved neighbor. When Greenfield and his mother asked his widow to pay their respects, the woman presented Greenfield with a coin. It was a gift, the woman said, that her husband had asked her to deliver after his death.
“When I think about it now, I think of her, in her grief, trying to comfort a child,” Greenfield remarked to the Kansas City Star. “She told me he left that penny for me.”
In real life, Greenfield, who was only around four, couldn’t help but spend the money. But when she remembered the event in her poetry, she conjured a girl who declares that she will keep this piece forever, a legacy of love from generation to generation.
Eloise Greenfield, poet and author of children’s books, born May 17, 1929, died August 5, 2021
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