Eloise Greenfield: “A Children’s Book Author Whose Poetry and Prose Illuminated the Lives of Black People”

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Eloise Greenfield, Who Wrote to Enlighten Black Children, Dies at 92”:

Eloise Greenfield, an award-winning children’s book author whose expressive poetry and prose illuminated the lives of Black people, including those of midwives during slavery and the Southerners who, like her family, moved north during the Great Migration, died on Aug. 5 in Washington….

Ms. Greenfield began writing for children in her early 40s with a mission to “document our existence and depict African Americans living, as we do in real life,” she told the website Brown Bookshelf in 2008.

In 48 books, she wrote about everyday subjects (the things a young girl loves, a boy rapping, a father’s death) and historical figures (biographies of Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks and Mary McLeod Bethune).

“When I write, I’m composing — combining meanings, the rhythms, the melody of language, in the hope that it can be a gift to others,” she said in 2018 when she accepted the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for lifetime achievement….

“Eloise Greenfield brought joy and enlightenment into the world,” the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which celebrates diversity in children’s literature, said in a message on Twitter after her death. “At the same time she broadened the path toward a more diverse American literature for children.”

For her book “The Great Migration: Journey to the North” (2010), Ms. Greenfield drew on family history — like her parents’ decision in 1929 to leave Parmele, N.C., where she was born, for Washington when she was three months old. And she plumbed Black history in the poetry collection “The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives” (2019).

In her breakthrough collection, “Honey, I Love: And Other Love Poems” (1978), she described the courage of Harriet Tubman, the former slave who led many to freedom….

Jason Reynolds, a children’s book author who dedicated his 2019 book, “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks,” to Ms. Greenfield, said that when he first read “Honey, I Love,” he felt it was “like finding a totem that I could carry around with me.” He added: “I’d buy copies to give away to my goddaughters and nieces. It exemplified what it meant to be happy, and the images of blackness, those pure, beautiful images, were devastatingly joyous.”…

Eloise Glynn Little was born in Parmele, about 90 miles east of Raleigh, on May 17, 1929, to Weston and Lessie (Jones) Little, who both worked for the federal government. She and her mother would collaborate 50 years later on a book, “Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir.”

Eloise was such a frequent reader of books from her local library that she got a part-time job there after graduating from high school. Early on, she wanted to teach, so she enrolled in Miner Teachers College but left during her junior year because of her shyness….

For the next 20 years or so she held various jobs, including one as a clerk-typist at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In the 1960s, she wrote poems and short stories, but she met with a lot of rejection. One poem, “To a Violin,” was published in 1962 in The Hartford Times in Connecticut and some of her stories were accepted by Negro Digest (later Black World).

Ms. Greenfield turned to children’s books after joining the D.C. Black Writers’ Workshop in 1971, receiving encouragement from the head of the workshop’s children’s book division to write a biography of Parks for young readers. That book was published in 1973, a year after she published “Bubbles” (later retitled “Good News”), about a boy learning to read.

“As soon as I started writing, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Ms. Greenfield said in 1997. “Just putting the words down and rearranging them and trying to say precisely what I wanted to say was fascinating.”

In “Sister” (1974), she described a girl watching her father die.

“Doretha’s daddy laughed, he laughed, he laughed a funny, jerky laugh that twisted his face,” she wrote. “His fingers let go of the paper plate and the fried chicken legs slid down, down, through the air and plopped in the dirt. … The ambulance driver stole Doretha’s daddy, stole Doretha’s daddy, stole Doretha’s daddy.”

There would be many more books, 29 of them illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist.

“Her work is the most illustrative I’ve ever worked with,” Ms. Gilchrist said. “I could see the pictures through her word selection, and, together with her rhythm and rhyme, the words were easy to illustrate.”

Ms. Greenfield’s honors include the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 1978 for “Africa Dream,” about a Black girl’s nocturnal vision of visiting her ancestral homeland, and the Education for Liberation Award in 2016 from Teaching for Change, an organization that gives parents and teachers tools to help students learn to “read, write and change the world.”…

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

Also see the Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Eloise Greenfield, author whose picture books uplifted Black children, dies at 92”


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