Award-winning children’s book author and poet Eloise Greenfield, known for her positive depictions of Black family life, her biographies spotlighting notable Black figures in U.S. history, and her efforts to fight racism, died on August 5. She was 92.
Greenfield was born May 17, 1929 in Parmele, N.C.; Soon after, her family relocated to Washington, D.C., and in 1938 moved to Langston Terrace, a public housing development. In Something About the Author, Greenfield fondly recalled a happy childhood there surrounded by friends, activities, and music—one of her passions. She also remembered her early years in overcrowded segregated schools where there were inferior books and materials, and not enough of them to go around.
Greenfield learned to read while still in kindergarten as she sat alongside her older brother and their mother reviewed his first-grade lessons. She was a shy girl, and in her book Childtimes: A Three Generation Memoir (Harper, 1979), a collaboration with her mother, she noted that she spent lots of time in the nearby public library.
After graduating from Cardozo High School in 1946, Greenfield began studies at Miner Teachers College with a goal of becoming an elementary school teacher. But unable to overcome her shyness when she realized she would need to be observed by instructors during her student teaching assignments, Greenfield chose to leave college after two years. She began her first full-time job as a clerk-typist at the U.S. Patent Office in early 1949. In 1950 she married Robert Greenfield and the couple welcomed son Steven the following year. A daughter, Monica, was born into the family. The couple would later divorce.
Of her work at the Patent Office, Greenfield wrote that she spent more than two years “typing the same letters, or variations thereof every day, and I was bored.” Switching jobs after her first maternity leave didn’t improve things much and Greenfield noted that she experienced racism and discrimination in the workplace. Over this period, she had begun to write rhymes and song lyrics in her spare time for fun and decided that writing would be the kind of fulfilling work she would enjoy—and would also allow her to stay out of the public eye. She studied the craft of writing via books from the library and began drafting short stories, children’s stories, poetry, and magazine articles, submitting them with no success. In 1960, wanting to spend more time with her children, Greenfield resigned from the Patent Office. She continued writing and collecting rejection slips—until the Hartford Times in Connecticut accepted her poem “To a Violin” for publication in 1962. She remained at home with her children throughout the 1960s, taking temporary jobs and pursued her writing dream, publishing a few pieces in magazines, including Negro Digest, each year.
In 1971, which Greenfield often called a “banner year,” she was prompted by a flyer on a bookstore bulletin board to join the D.C. Black Writers’ Workshop. Sharon Bell Mathis, head of the organization’s children’s literature division, encouraged Greenfield to write a picture book biography on spec for Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers. Greenfield opted to write about Rosa Parks. In an interview with Language Arts, Greenfield noted that Mathis “talked so passionately about the need for good black books that it was contagious. Once I realized the full extent of the problem, it became urgent for me to try, along with others, to build a large collection of books for children.”
Also in 1971, Greenfield received word that a picture book she had written in 1966—about a boy who had just learned to read his first three words—had been accepted for publication after she had received 10 rejections. Drum & Spear Press (an arm of D.C.’s Drum & Spear Bookstore, founded by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and dedicated to books from Africa and the diaspora) published Greenfield’s first children’s book, Bubbles, in 1972. Crowell published her book Rosa Parks the next year. When Rosa Parks received the inaugural Carter G. Woodson Award in 1974, Greenfield was asked to make a number of appearances—a development that spurred her to finally conquer her fear of speaking in public.
Greenfield’s children’s book career further blossomed in the 1970s and included the release of her biography Paul Robeson, illustrated by George Ford (Crowell, 1975), a 1976 Coretta Scott King Author Honor selection; and Africa Dream, illustrated by Carole Bayard (Crowell, 1977), which won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Award in 1978. That same year, Greenfield won a CSK Author Honor designation for the biography Mary McCleod Bethune, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Crowell, 1977). Among her other works of that decade were the collection Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Crowell, 1978) and Childtimes. Her picture book Nathaniel Talking (Black Butterfly, 1989) was a CSK Author Honor title and Greenfield won the CSK Author Award again in 1992 for Night on Neighborhood Street, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (Dial, 1991). In 2018 Greenfield received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In her later years, even as she experienced sight and hearing loss, Greenfield continued to write and speak at conferences, and she was a tireless supporter of fellow children’s book creators. Her most recent picture book, Alaina and the Great Play, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Alazar Press), was published in May. The organization Teaching for Change presented Greenfield with its Education for Liberation Award in 2016, a prize that honors “individuals whose work and lived experiences embody the pursuit and interconnectedness of education, multiculturalism, social justice, and democracy.” At the awards ceremony, Greenfield said: “Our work is far from over. All of us—authors, illustrators, educators, and many others—will continue our commitment to this work so that children can see themselves in books, see their beauty and intelligence, see the strengths they have inherited from a long line of predecessors, see their ability to overcome difficulties, challenges, pain, and find deep joy and laughter in books, in characters they recognize as themselves.”
Nancy Inteli, v-p and publishing director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, offered this tribute: “When I arrived at Harper, I was lucky enough to inherit Eloise Greenfield’s groundbreaking and timeless backlist, which meant I was also the lucky editor to accompany Eloise and her daughter Monica to ALA in New Orleans, when Eloise received the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. I watched in awe as author after author, librarian after librarian, and educator after educator greeted Eloise and thanked her for all that she had done to open the door for Black authors and other underrepresented voices in the industry—and Eloise greeted everyone right back with a gracious response that often included a cherished photo for many. Her indelible legacy includes gems like Brothers and Sisters, Childtimes, and The Friendly Four. But the book I return to over and over again is Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, and especially the poems “Honey, I Love” which celebrates family and the importance of loving oneself, and “Things” with its celebration of the power of words and poetry: “Went to the kitchen/Lay down on the floor/Made me a poem/Still got it/Still got it.” Eloise will be greatly missed, and her words will live on for all generations to come.”