Eloise Greenfield, Who Wrote to Enlighten Black Children, Dies at 92
In nearly 50 books, written in poetry and prose, she described the lives of ordinary people and heroes like Rosa Parks and Paul Robeson.
Eloise Greenfield, an award-winning children’s book author whose expressive poetry and prose illuminated the lives of Black people, including those of midwives during slavery and the Southerners who, like her family, moved north during the Great Migration, died on Aug. 5 in a hospital in Washington. She was 92.
Her daughter, Monica Greenfield, confirmed the death.
Ms. Greenfield began writing for children in her early 40s with a mission to “document our existence and depict African Americans living, as we do in real life,” she told the website Brown Bookshelf in 2008.
In 48 books, she wrote about everyday subjects (the things a young girl loves, a boy rapping, a father’s death) and historical figures (biographies of Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks and Mary McLeod Bethune).
“When I write, I’m composing — combining meanings, the rhythms, the melody of language, in the hope that it can be a gift to others,” she said in 2018 when she accepted the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for lifetime achievement, which the American Library Association gives to Black authors and illustrators.
“Eloise Greenfield brought joy and enlightenment into the world,” the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which celebrates diversity in children’s literature, said in a message on Twitter after her death. “At the same time she broadened the path toward a more diverse American literature for children.”
Ms. Greenfield drew on family history — like her parents’ decision in 1929 to leave Parmele, N.C., where she was born, for Washington when she was three months old — for her book “The Great Migration: Journey to the North” (2010). And she plumbed Black history in the poetry collection “The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives” (2019).
In her breakthrough collection, “Honey, I Love: And Other Love Poems” (1978), she described the courage of Harriet Tubman, the former slave who led many to freedom.
She wrote, in part:
Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one neither
And didn’t stay one neither.
Jason Reynolds, a children’s book author who dedicated his 2019 book, “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks,” to Ms. Greenfield, said that when he first read “Honey, I Love,” he felt it was “like finding a totem that I could carry around with me.” He added: “I’d buy copies to give away to my goddaughters and nieces. It exemplified what it meant to be happy, and the images of blackness, those pure, beautiful images, were devastatingly joyous.”
In the title poem, “Honey, I Love,” Ms. Greenfield described a young girl who loves simple things like her own laughter, a car ride to a church picnic, the warmth of her mother’s arm while she’s sewing, and time with extended family.
My cousin comes to visit and you know he’s from the South
’Cause every word he says just kind of slides out of his mouth
I like the way he whistles and I like the way he walks
But honey, let me tell you that I LOVE the way he talks
I love the way my cousin talks
Phoebe Yeh, vice president and co-publisher of Crown Books, who edited six of Ms. Greenfield’s books at HarperCollins, said, “Eloise loved being around children and writing for children, and was so sensitive to how they feel about their new siblings or sometimes about having a bad day.”
Eloise Glynn Little was born in Parmele on May 17, 1929, to Weston and Lessie (Jones) Little, who both worked for the federal government. She and her mother would collaborate 50 years later on a book, “Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir.”
Eloise was such a frequent reader of books from her local library that she got a part-time job there after graduating high school. Early on, she wanted to teach, so she enrolled in Miner Teachers College (part of what was absorbed into the University of the District of Columbia), but she left during her junior year because of her shyness and discomfort at being the center of students’ attention.
So for about 20 years she held various jobs, including one as a clerk-typist at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In the 1960s, she wrote poems and short stories, but she met with a lot of rejection. One of her poems, “To a Violin,” was published in The Hartford Times in Connecticut in 1962, and some of her stories were accepted by Negro Digest (later Black World).
She turned to children’s books after joining the D.C. Black Writers’ Workshop in 1971 and she received encouragement from the head of the workshop’s children’s book division to write a biography of Parks for young readers. That book was published in 1973, a year after she published “Bubbles” (later retitled “Good News”), about a young boy learning to read.
“As soon as I started writing, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Ms. Greenfield said in an interview in 1997 with Language Arts, a journal for elementary and middle-school teachers. “Just putting the words down and rearranging them and trying to say precisely what I wanted to say was fascinating.”
In “Sister” (1974), Ms. Greenfield described a young girl watching her father die.
“Doretha’s daddy laughed, he laughed, he laughed a funny, jerky laugh that twisted his face,” she wrote. “His fingers let go of the paper plate and the fried chicken legs slid down, down, through the air and plopped in the dirt. … The ambulance driver stole Doretha’s daddy, stole Doretha’s daddy, stole Doretha’s daddy.”
There would be many more books, 29 of them illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist.
“Her work is the most illustrative I’ve ever worked with,” Ms. Gilchrist said by phone. “I could see the pictures through her word selection, and, together with her rhythm and rhyme, the words were easy to illustrate.”
Ms. Greenfield’s honors include the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 1978 for “Africa Dream,” about a young Black girl’s nocturnal vision of visiting her ancestral homeland, and the Education for Liberation Award in 2016 from Teaching for Change, an organization that gives parents and teachers tools to help students learn to “read, write and change the world.”
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Greenfield is survived by her son, Steve; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; her sisters, Vedie Jones and Vera Darby; and her brother, Gerald Little. Her husband, Robert Greenfield, died in 2013.
In one poem in “The Women Who Caught the Babies,” Ms. Greenfield tried to describe the reaction of midwives to the Emancipation Proclamation, which meant that a child they were bringing into the world was being born into freedom.
She, the midwife, felt the
excitement circling through
She knew the reason,
knew that it was more than
the joy of a new baby coming,
but didn’t let herself
think about it yet. She had work
The mother and the other
women ignored it, too,
until they were sure that
all was well with mother
Then they could think,
think about this new thing
That was circling around them.