Children’s book author Constance C. Greene, best known for such notable middle grade novels as A Girl Named Al and Beat the Turtle Drum, died on April 7 at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Conn. She was 96.
Greene was born on October 24, 1924 in Manhattan, the second daughter of Mabel and Richard Clarke, both journalists. Mabel Clarke was the first movie critic for the New York Daily News, the same newspaper where Richard Clarke served as managing editor.
Greene grew up in Larchmont, and upon graduating from Marymount School in Manhattan, she enrolled at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1942. But after two years of study, Greene left college in 1944, noting in her Something About the Author autobiography that “what I craved, what I needed, was a taste of the real world. A job.” She landed one in the mailroom at the Associated Press in New York. She worked her way up from there, soon earning a position as a reporter for the AP’s city desk during WWII, where favorite assignments included interviewing Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich, who had each been on a USO tour.
In 1946, she married Philip M. Greene, who had been a B-29 pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps and whom she had known in Larchmont. The couple would go on to have five children and by 1954 the family was settled in Connecticut.
Though she had continued writing short stories through the years, it wasn’t until Greene’s youngest child started kindergarten that she joined a writer’s workshop and began working on what would be her first book for children. With encouragement from the group’s instructor, Greene wrote to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley—a family friend—asking if she might recommend a literary agent. From there, Greene’s middle-grade manuscript was taken on by agent Marilyn Marlow, and, following some revisions, the project landed on the desk of Velma Varner at Viking Press, who agreed to publish it. The book, A Girl Called Al, about a smart, “very nonconformist” girl of divorced parents and her best friend, was released in 1969 and was named an ALA Notable Book.
Greene said that Beat the Turtle Drum (Viking, 1976) was her most autobiographical book and, unlike most of her other novels, it had a heavier theme: the death of a sister. The story was based on Greene’s childhood loss of her own older sister. Beat the Turtle Drum was adapted as an ABC Afterschool Special titled Very Good Friends.
In all, Greene published more than 25 books for young readers during her career. She is survived by her five children, 11 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.