Pioneering children’s book author Eloise Greenfield has died at 92


When beloved children’s author Eloise Greenfield died last week in her longtime hometown of Washington, DC at the age of 92, she left behind a catalog of books spanning five decades and fans who grew up reciting his poems, reading his books to their children and buying them. for their grandchildren.

His first book, “Bubbles”, was published in 1972, at a time when books featuring black children and families were scarce. She quickly rose to prominence with her lyrical creations featuring everyday people as well as historical figures. When she was 80, she already donned a white suit and apple cap in a video shot by her grandson to rap lyrics she wrote for her young character Nathaniel, who offered the philosophy of her life. in rhymes in “In the land of words”.

“My mother wrote for the love of the craft, for the love of words and for a strong sense of mission and purpose,” said her son, Steve Greenfield. “She set out to counter the blatant misrepresentation of African Americans in literature and mainstream media and to contribute to black children by recognizing their beauty and love.”

Greenfield was blind by the time she suffered a fatal stroke, but her dedication to children pushed her to continue writing, with the help of multiple devices and her daughter, Monica Greenfield. In all, she has written 48 books.

“As her vision got worse, she would dictate her thoughts and I would type them out,” Monica Greenfield said.

Eloise Greenfield with son Steve and daughter Monica at the 2003 Hurston / Wright Foundation Annual Legacy Awards Gala, where she received the North Star Award.Courtesy of the Greenfield family

Greenfield’s death was the third recent loss of pioneers who helped create and promote books for or about black children. Bernette Ford, the first African-American publisher of children’s books at a major publishing house, died of cancer on June 20. She was 70 years old. (Her husband, George Ford, illustrated Greenfield’s book on artist and activist Paul Robeson.) Floyd Cooper, a famous children’s book illustrator, credited Greenfield with starting his career. He died on July 15 at the age of 65.

Greenfield insisted on having black illustrators for his books at a time when publishers claimed they could not find any.

“Early in her career, she experienced some setback because of it, which strengthened my understanding of our anti-racism, integrity and principle,” said Monica Greenfield.

Eloise Greenfield and illustrator Jan Spivey Gilchrist have worked together on 29 books for 26 years. Gilchrist was a good artist and had never considered illustrating until Greenfield, who admired the way she portrayed blacks in her paintings, suggested that she do so.

The first book she illustrated was that of Greenfield’s mother, Lessie Jones Little, a collection of poems called “Children of Long Ago”. Greenfield loved Gilchrist’s work and the two became quick friends, talking five or six times a day and traveling together to promote projects.

Writers, historians and custodians of culture admired Greenfield for his beliefs. His lyrical writings showed black life in a way that had rarely been presented in print, making it endearing to teachers and parents, but his insistence that black illustrators and writers be tasked with controlling the images of their lives made her a valued guardian of black history and culture.

“We were in Little Rock, Arkansas,” recalls Gilchrist. “We were on stage and there was a white woman who had made a book and it was racist. Eloise did not attack the book or the woman, but she was firm. The woman said something racist and condescending in his speech. I remember the story had a black man in town and he saved all those white people. Eloise picked up the microphone after the woman was done. Everything calmed down. There were a lot of people. in the room, and all but three or four were white.

“Eloise explained something about the character. I know she said he was not very nice, that he was stupid and that it was not good for the kids. No one said a word but afterwards the queue to see her and buy her book wrapped around the block.

“She was one of the most honest and righteous people I have ever met,” said Gilchrist, who added, “I am going through a difficult time with this loss. This woman has never bowed. Never tilted.

Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, founders of Just Us Books, started their business in 1988 because publishers wouldn’t accept their manuscripts focused on black children. They got to know Greenfield and witnessed his determination to provide black literature and support black and independent bookstores. Wade said Greenfield looked a lot like the Harriet Tubman she mentioned in a poem of the same name:

Harriet Tubman took nothing

Wasn’t afraid of anything either

I did not come to this world not to be a slave

And wasn’t gonna stay one either

“She was one of those pioneers who were mentors, advocates and carriers of the struggle for diversity,” he said. “She didn’t take anything.”

Greenfield’s first book was published by the independent Drum and Spear Press in Washington, DC

“She had sent her work to big publishing houses, but they didn’t respond positively,” Cheryl Wade said.

Judy Richardson, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee veteran, filmmaker and educator, was the children’s editor for Drum and Spear Press when Greenfield submitted her manuscript on a little boy excited to learn his first words.

“We had a bookstore founded by people from SNCC and we formed this branch, the press,” she said. “We had no heat, we had a rat in the kitchen named Jimmy, and I was on the third floor to open the bids. I was so excited when I opened “I Can Read” that I called her that night and said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Greenfield, I read your article and love it. She was surprised. “

This book, “Bubbles”, was published in 1972.

Greenfield in Langston Terrace, a social housing community in Washington, DC, which she has lived in for many years.Courtesy of the Greenfield family

“People loved it! Richardson remembered. “She knew the children and she had such love for them, especially black children. The attention and warmth of the book made me smile even when I was freezing cold. This love and self-esteem that she gave to black children of all ages will live on through her books. “

“She was a master poet, a revolutionary storyteller. I stand on his shoulders, “said children’s author Kelly Starling Lyons, founding member of Brown Bookshelf, a group of writers and illustrators that raises awareness of the” myriad of African-American voices who write for young people. readers ”.

Lyons said Greenfield “was so kind and humble” and sometimes sent Lyon an encouraging email, “saying she was proud of me”.

“I found it so amazing. I’m so thankful that we have his books,” Lyons said. “I love that her stories can range from everyday portraits of family and celebration to revealing moments of a little-known story.”

Greenfield’s son remembers taking his mother to a writers’ workshop in the 1970s and listening to his mentor from other writers.

“I saw how dedicated she was to providing genuine and empathetic advice to beginning writers,” he said.

Fans inevitably bring up the lyricism and rhythm of Greenfield’s writing.

“Our mother loved all kinds of music,” her daughter said. “One of my favorite memories is dancing with my mom to jazz in our living room. I particularly remember the aria ‘Filthy McNasty’ by Horace Silver. I also loved to hear him play the piano.

Greenfield’s son and daughter say their mother read everything to them when they were kids.

“We read plays, novels, poetry and had fun playing word games,” said Steve Greenfield. “She also alerted us to stereotypes we would encounter in literature and in children’s television animation, pointing them out and explaining the sources. This analytical perspective has served me extremely well in my life.

In addition to his two adult children, Greenfield leaves behind four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Greenfield has won numerous awards, including the 2018 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award; a Hurston / Wright Foundation North Star Lifetime Achievement Award; and induction into the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.

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