Born 17 May 1929, Parmele, North Carolina
Daughter of Weston W. and Lessie Jones Little; married Robert J. Greenfield, 1950 (separated); children Steven, Monica
Passionate about language and the rhythms of words, Eloise Greenfield has devoted her career to writing children's books offering African American children a positive and self-affirming view of the minority experience. Greenfield writes: "I want to be one of those who can choose and order words that children will want to celebrate. I want to make them shout and laugh and blink back tears and care about themselves." Her extensive list of prestigious awards is one indication that she has succeeded in this goal. After what Greenfield describes as a childhood she looks back on with pleasure, she attended Miner Teachers College from 1946-49. She then began a career as a clerk typist at the U.S. Patent Office (1949-56). From 1956 to 1960, Greenfield was a supervisory patent assistant, after which she worked in a variety of capacities in the Washington D.C. area until 1968.
In the 1970s Greenfield became involved in the District of Columbia Black Writer's Workshop, where she started as the codirector of adult fiction (1971-73) and then became director of children's literature (1973-74). She served as the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities' writer-in-residence for 1973 and 1985-86. She continues to write and participate in numerous school and library programs and workshops for both children and adults, striving to address realistic childhood issues—African American issues in particular—by stressing the importance of family and positive alternative methods of solving problems.
Early in her career, Greenfield commented on how "it has been inspiring…to be part of the struggle" to create quality books for African American children. In picture books, novels for young readers, biographies of famous African Americans, memoirs of childhood, and poetry, Greenfield's work has been infused with warmth, hope, and joy. Her vision has always pointed in two directions: back to a past rich with strength and courage and forward to a future brimming with possibilities.
Greenfield's young protagonists are often dreamers whose quiet time spent imagining and dreaming is growing time. In Nathaniel Talking (1989), her third Coretta Scott King Award winner, young Nathaniel B. Free raps philosophically about his family, his friends, his life. Despite losing his mother, Nathaniel feels strongly connected to his father and his extended family. Familial connections are always important in Greenfield's writing, and she lovingly explores alternatives to the traditional nuclear family.
Family provided Greenfield with personal strength as she faced societal hostility and rejection. With her mother, Lessie Jones Little, she wrote Childtimes: A Three Generational Memoir (1979) dedicated to the memory of her grandmother who had dictated material for the book. This autobiography, which many consider Greenfield's best work, traces the history of the three women against the landscape of their times. An intimate personal history shapes the book's quiet theme that childhood can and should be happy, a time of building self-esteem supported by a caring family and community: "a childtime is a mighty thing." The book received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction and the Carter Book Award for outstanding merit.
Greenfield created her first book, a scrapbook put together with household paste, when she was three and views this act as the beginning of her life. As a creator, she thrilled to the sentence "Home is where the music is," and continues to feel a mission to celebrate those words. Home and music continue as constant themes, anchors to which she and her characters return. Her first book of poetry, Honey, I Love: and Other Love Poems (1978), a Reading Rainbow selection, includes the music of skipping rope and the rhythm of riding trains; all poems are home bound, safe and secure. Nathaniel Talking contains the literal music of "bones" and blues.
Most of Greenfield's picture books address everyday traumas and delight: the arrival of a new sibling, parent separation, a grandmother's sadness about moving, buying a present for a mother's birthday. Sometimes the resolution seems too easy and predictable, but Greenfield's determination that children feel good about themselves transcends these considerations. Two novels for young readers, Sisters (1974) and Talk About a Family (1978), record the anger and sadness of their young female protagonists as they try to make sense of their fears and confusion. Both novels conclude realistically: with a potential for a better future, but with no facile solution to present difficulties.
Her commitment to providing good role models for African American children has drawn Greenfield toward biography. Lucid writing and artful selection of detail makes her books on heroic Americans Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, and Paul Robeson accessible to young readers, and she has won numerous awards for these documents of resilience and courage. They are an important part of Greenfield's share in building a significant body of excellent literature for all children.
Sister (1969). The Last Dance (1971). Love, Oh Love (1972). Bubbles (1972, reissued as Good News, 1977). Rosa Parks (1973, 1995). She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl (1974). Me and Nessie (1975). Paul Robeson (1975). First Pink Light (1976, reissued 1991). Africa Dream (with L. J. Little, 1977). Mary McLeod Bethune (1977). I Can Do It Myself (with Lessie Jones Little, 1978). Darlene (1980). Grandmama's Joy (1980, 1999). Daydreamers (1981). Alesia (with Alesia Revis, 1981). Grandpa's Face (1988). Under the Sunday Tree (1988). My Doll, Keshia (1991). Night on Neighborhood Street (1991, 1996). Big Friend, Little Friend (1991). Daddy and I (1991). I Make Music (1991). Koya Delaney and the Good Girl (1992). William and the Good Old Days (1993). Aaron and Gayla's Counting Book (1993). Sweet Baby Coming (with J. S. Gilchrist, 1994). On My Horse (1995). Easter Parade (1997). For the Love of the Game: Michael Jordan and Me (1997). Kia Tanisha (1997). Kia Tanisha Drives Her Car (1997). Angels (1998).
Black Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books (1992). CA (Online, 1999). Children's Books and Their Creators (1995). Children's Literature Review (1996). TCCW (1983, 1989). SATA (1990). CLR (1982).
Horn Book (Dec. 1975).
—SUSAN P. BLOOM,
UPDATED BY JULIET BYINGTON