Award-winning author Bette Greene, known for her books that honestly addressed difficult subject matter, including the often banned or challenged YA novels Summer of My German Soldier and The Drowning of Stephan Jones, died on October 2 of congestive heart failure at her assisted living facility in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. She was 86.
Greene was born June 28, 1934 in Memphis and grew up in Parkin, Ark., the small town where her parents owned and ran a general store. Because her mother and father were so busy at their store, much of Greene’s childhood was spent in the care of the family’s African American housekeeper, Ruth. That relationship would later inspire the one at the heart of Summer of My German Soldier, in which a 12-year-old Jewish girl in rural Arkansas being raised by her African American housekeeper during WWII befriends and aids an escaped German prisoner of war. It wasn’t until a 2011 video interview with Open Road that Greene said—after denying it for 40 years—that the story was indeed fully autobiographical. “It’s about my life,” she said in the video. “It was a story that was bursting out to be told…. Before, I had felt that I had harmed a lot of people. I was ashamed. It took me a lot of years to be able to say, ‘I think I did the right thing.’ Now I’m sure I did the right thing.”
As a girl Greene learned about issues of social justice and racial and religious intolerance firsthand. “I think the most important aspect of my growing up, the thing that made me, me, was growing up almost counter to my culture,” Greene said in a 1991 interview for Authors and Artists for Young Adults of her childhood. “Growing up Jewish in the middle of the Bible Belt. Being white but having, for all practical purposes, a black mother. And not really fitting into the black culture fully because of my skin, but understanding it more than my friends because I was a part of it.”
By age nine, Greene said in her Something About the Author biographical essay, “I fell in love with my own byline,” recalling how she sent a carefully handwritten eyewitness account of a fire that broke out at a neighboring dairy farm to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The newspaper published Greene’s story “in the back pages” and mailed her a check for 18 cents. From that point she worked hard on improving her writing, producing pieces for various local publications while in high school, and taking home first prize in a city-wide essay contest as well. After high school graduation, Greene spent a year studying at Alliance Française in Paris before attended the University of Alabama, Memphis State University, and Columbia University. During this time she also worked as a reporter for United Press International. Following her college studies in 1955, Greene held jobs as a part-time journalist and a public information officer. In 1959, she married Donald Sumner Greene, a physician, and the couple moved to Boston where they settled and raised two children.
As a young mother, Greene began writing fiction. She worked for five years—including during a 1972 creative writing course at Harvard—on the novel that would eventually become Summer of My German Soldier. The manuscript was rejected 18 times before it was ultimately published by Dial Press in 1973 and received critical acclaim before becoming a finalist for the National Book Award. The depictions of prejudice and domestic violence in the book landed it on ALA’s annual lists of the most frequently banned or challenged books for decades. Summer of My German Soldier was also adapted as a made-for-TV movie on NBC starring Esther Rolle (who won an Emmy for her portrayal) and Kristy McNichol in 1978.
Greene addressed another form of injustice in The Drowning of Stephan Jones (Bantam, 1991), considered one of the first YA novels to address homophobic violence. The story is based on a real-life incident in which a young gay man dies when three teenage boys beat him and throw him off a bridge.
In addition to her YA titles, Greene wrote several books for middle grade readers featuring a character named Philip Hall. Her novel Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe (Dial), about two rival classmates in rural Arkansas, was named a Newbery Honor book in 1975.
Beverly Horowitz, senior v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press, who edited The Drowning of Stephan Jones and whose company published paperback reprints of Greene’s work, paid tribute with these words: “Bette Greene’s novels have a common thread: her characters showed empathy for those treated unjustly. During the years her books were published, so many decades ago, she depicted horrific bully behavior and readers felt how wrong those actions were. This was courageous writing especially at that time. When Bantam published her books in paperback editions, they were constantly censored, but were also embraced for classroom discussion that made kids think. I bet that many adults today remember the impact of reading Summer of My German Soldier in school. Bette’s hard-hitting exploration of prejudice still rings true.”