Eloise Greenfield, author whose picture books uplifted Black children, dies at 92Eloise Greenfield, author whose picture books uplifted Black children, dies at 92
on Aug 23, 2021
Ms. Greenfield spent nearly her entire life in Washington, whereas a child she would lose herself within the stacks of the public library, and where she began writing books of her own during her downtime as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office in the 1960s.
A mother of two, she set out on a mission to help rectify the deficiencies of the literary canon for children, in which African Americans were often invisible or demeaned with racist imagery and stereotypes.
“I wanted my books to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are,” Ms. Greenfield once told the Washington Informer. “I wanted to write books that inspired and uplifted them, that made them laugh and be happy.”
Over a half-century, Ms. Greenfield wrote more than 40 picture books, novels, biographies, and poetry collections. In 2018, the American Library Association honored her with the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, recognizing her as “a trailblazer whose extraordinary books of poetry and prose have influenced many and continue to resonate with children today.”
The first full-color mainstream picture book featuring an African American child is generally believed to be the Caldecott Medal-winning volume “The Snowy Day” (1962), written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, who was White. After enduring rejection after rejection, Ms. Greenfield debuted as a book author 10 years later with “Bubbles,” the story of a young Black child as he learns to read.
“Bubbles,” a picture book with illustrations by Eric Marlow, was released in 1972 by Drum and Spear Press, a Washington publishing house founded by former civil rights activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Other publishing houses, Ms. Greenfield said, had dismissed her submissions with the oblique explanation that “this is not quite what we want.”
“During the period in which Black writers were being rejected, some editors denied race was a factor in these rejections,” she told The Washington Post in 1991. “They claimed they weren’t receiving any well-written manuscripts.”
In time, Ms. Greenfield becomes so popular that she was able to abandon her government day job and devote herself full-time to writing. At one point, she had at least 10 volumes in print at HarperCollins Children’s Books, a rarity in the notoriously competitive publishing industry.
Ms. Greenfield argued that children’s literature must not cower before the dangers and sorrows children face in real life. In her book “Grandmama’s Joy” (1980), illustrated by Carole Byard, an orphaned girl consoles her despairing grandmother, who can no longer afford the rent at the home they share. “Night on Neighborhood Street” (1991), a poetry collection illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, included a verse titled “The Seller,” about children who “see behind” the “easy smile” of a drug dealer and run into their homes, where they find “warmth / and life.”
But the overriding themes of her work were hopeful. “I feel the body of literature should reflect us the way we are,” Ms. Greenfield told The Post. “When we say realism, many people think automatically of the negative side, and the joy is just as realistic as the pain.”
In “Nathaniel Talking” (1988), illustrated by Gilchrist, Ms. Greenfield introduced readers to the lyrical wisdom of 9-year-old Nathaniel B. Free, who philosophizes in the cadence of rap:
It’s Nathaniel talking
and Nathaniel’s me
I’m talking about
About the things I do
And the people I see
All told in the words
Of Nathaniel B. Free
In “Africa Dream” (1977), illustrated by Byard, Ms. Greenfield took readers on what a Post reviewer described as “a magic-carpet-ride for the kindergarten set, a trip to Africa not to be missed.” Another noted poetry volume was “Honey, I Love: And Other Love Poems” (1978), illustrated by the Caldecott-winning artists Diane and Leo Dillon.
Ms. Greenfield said she sought to give children a sense of history in works such as “Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir” (1979), which she co-authored with her mother, Lessie Jones Little, and in volumes including “The Great Migration: Journey to the North” (2011) and “The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives” (2019). She penned biographies of celebrated African Americans including civil rights activist Rosa Parks, educator and women’s rights advocate Mary McLeod Bethune and entertainer Paul Robeson.
“It is necessary for Black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present,” she once said, “in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future.”
Eloise Glynn Little was born in Parmele, N.C., on May 17, 1929. She was an infant when her family moved to Washington, where her mother and father worked for the government. She grew up in the Langston Terrace housing project in Northeast, studying piano and absorbing a love of literature from her parents, and graduated from Cardozo High School in 1946.
Ms. Greenfield escaped the tedium of her job at the patent office with her writing. Her 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 that I didn’t have that talent and I would think of something else to do,” she told The Post. Eventually, she added, “I learned that rejections are to be expected.”
Her marriage to Robert Greenfield ended in separation. Besides their daughter, of Washington, survivors include a son, Steve Greenfield of Silver Spring, Md.; two sisters; a brother; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Ms. Greenfield said she often worked on her manuscripts through the night and into the early hours of the morning, allowing herself to be transported back to her childhood as she created the characters of her books and verse.
The poem “Keepsake,” published in “Honey, I Love,” was drawn from her memory of the death of a beloved neighbor. When Ms. Greenfield and her mother called on his widow to pay their respects, the woman handed a coin to Ms. Greenfield. It was a gift, the woman said, that her husband had asked her to deliver after his death.
“When I think about that now, I think about her, in her grief, trying to comfort a child,” Ms. Greenfield remarked to the Kansas City Star. “She told me he had left that penny for me.”
In real life, Ms. Greenfield, who was only about 4 years old, could not resist spending the money. But when she recollected the event in her poetry, she conjured a girl who declares that she will forever keep that coin, a bequest of love from one generation to another.
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