I was tickled the other day, following the Grammy music awards. The discussion: Beyoncé’s introduction of Tina Turner as “the queen.” It caused quite a stir. At least with Aretha it did.
Pitty the fool who crosses the queen.
I really don’t care about who’s considered the queen of soul music. As far as I’m concerned, all three ladies are music royalty. But the controversy did make me wonder, do African American children’s literature creators have a queen? Do we have a literary diva who paved the way, who set the pace for others to follow? Of course we do. And in my humble opinion, that lady would be Eloise Greenfield.
Ms. Greenfield’s writing career spans three decades. Here first book, Bubbles (later reprinted as Good News), published in 1972. Since then, she’s went on to write more than 40 books for children — poetry, biography, picture books and older fiction.
Her honors and awards are many, but to name just a few, she is the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award. She received the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks, the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books for Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems. From the Boston Globe/Horn Book, she received an Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little.
More recently, her work was recognized by the CCBC‘s (Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s) 2007 Choices, for When the Horses Ride By and The Friendly Four. For her body of work, she also received the 2007 Wheatley Book Award, sponsored by Quarterly Black Books Review as part of the Harlem Book Fair.
On her biography, at the Balkin Buddies website, Ms. Greenfield spells out her mission as a children writer. She says it’s twofold: (1) to contribute to the development of a large body of African American literature for children and (2) to continue to fill her life with the joy of creating with words.
I’d say she’s remained true to her mission.
So, in the words of Beyonce Knowles: Ladies and gentlemen, stand on your feet and give it up for the queen!
Don: Has your mission as a writer for children evolved through the years?
Eloise: My primary mission remains the same. Although the situation is not now as desperate as it once was, there is still a need for more children’s books that document our existence and depict African Americans living, as we do in real life, a variety of lifestyles. I’d like to see this body of literature continue to grow, and I want to contribute to it. From time to time, I will also write books that fit within a broader context. My most recent book, When the Horses Ride By: Children in the Times of War (Lee & Low Books), beautifully illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, is about children all over the world, throughout history, trying to keep their dreams alive in spite of war.
Don: You’ve published more than 40 books for children, which include poetry, biography, picture books and older fiction. Do you have a preference?
Eloise: My favorite books to write are those that are totally my creation. They allow me to daydream, to see people in my imagination, to hear their voices and even to hear their thoughts. Although biography is fascinating because the subjects led exciting lives, I am restricted by facts, and therefore biography comes in second, after the other genres.
Don: I am primarily an illustrator. I didn’t consider myself a word person until just a few years ago when I began writing myself. But I struggle with words, and often, I am struck with writer’s block. What are your struggles and how do you overcome them?
Eloise: I think struggling with words is the name of the game. I write many drafts. Sometimes I end the day happy with a passage, but when I read it the next day, I see problems. I say to myself, “What in the world was I thinking?” Then I get back to work on it because nothing can leave my hands until I feel that it is my best work. Thank goodness, I’ve never had writer’s block. If I did, I would probably attribute it first to having too much going on in my head and in my life. I’d try to clear some of that out to leave space for subconscious creativity.
Don: Tell me about your road to publication — the highs, the lows.
Eloise: My road to publication was long and, not surprisingly, filled with rejections. These were the low points, but not too low — I was optimistic (although I did shed a few tears once). The highlights were acceptance letters and published work. I began writing in my early twenties, around 1953. My first publication was a poem, “To a Violin,” in the Hartford Times in 1962. Throughout the sixties, I had articles and stories published in Negro Digest, which later became Black World. Finally, my first book, Bubbles, was published in 1972 by Drum and Spear Press. I remember well how excited I was about each one of these events. When the Horses Ride By and The Friendly Four (HarperCollins) were both published in 2006. For both books, Jan Spivey Gilchrist and I talked about the ideas and got excited about them; then I went off alone and wrote the manuscripts and sent them to my agent.
Don: In terms of developing your writing, what was the best decisions you’ve made?
Eloise: Easy Question. The best decision was to study the craft. I read book after book. I used to wish that I knew a published writer that I could turn to for advice, but the great author, John Oliver Killens, didn’t start his writers’ workshop here in D. C. until 1971. By that time, my first book, Bubbles, was already in production and my second book, Rosa Parks, had been accepted for publication. I attended John’s workshop for one semester, and a few months earlier, I had joined the D. C. Black Writers’ Workshop. It was wonderful to be in an atmosphere with other writers, John Oliver Killens, especially, but those books on the craft were my mentors.
Don: How have you grown as a writer since your earliest published works? Where do you strive to improve?
Eloise: I’m not striving to improve. I think growth and improvement are pretty automatic when you’re working at something that’s difficult. I want two things: to spend the hours of my life doing something that is satisfying to me and to make a contribution. I leave the assessment of my growth to others. Once in a while, someone will say to me that Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems (1978) is still my best book. Someone else will tell me just the opposite, that I have really grown since I wrote that book.
Don: In bringing a story to life, what are some of the challenges you face?
Eloise: The challenge, always, is to find the right words, words that have the right meanings, sounds, and rhythms, words that go inside characters and show their complexity, their needs, their strengths and weaknesses, words that move the story from one scene to the next, etc., etc. It’s important to remember that in creative writing, as opposed to formal writing, we have the freedom to break rules. Children understand the difference when it’s explained to them. The poem, “Harriet Tubman,” begins “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff/ Wasn’t scared of nothing neither.” If I had written, “Harriet Tubman didn’t accept any abuse./ She wasn’t afraid of anything either,” the poem would have been weakened, and so would Harriet.
Don: What challenges have you experienced — if any — as an African American author, in a field that produces less than 2% of books by or about African Americans? How have you met the challenge?
Eloise: African Americans face many obstacles, no matter what the occupation, but we have a long history of courage and determination. Knowing that history keeps us going.
Don: As a new writer myself, sometimes I feel the pressure to write a particular kind of story, or address a certain type of subject matter. Have you felt that same pressure, and what advice can you offer aspiring writers who want to write on subjects out-of-the-box?
Eloise: We have to remember the admonition to be true to ourselves. We have to continue to write what is important to us. At the same time, as popular literature changes, we can look for subjects and styles that we can use sometimes — as long as we don’t violate our principles.
Don: You are a successful author and speaker. And you have a family. How do you find balance — and writing time, for that matter?
Eloise: I set priorities, and I have to say “no” to many worthwhile requests (to serve on boards, for example). As long as I believe in my mission, I don’t allow myself to feel guilty. I also don’t use email. Some people are annoyed by my decision, but others say they understand because the volume they receive is overwhelming. When my children were young, they were my top priority, not only because it was a responsibility, but because it was fun. Speaking at schools and conferences is also a combination of serious work and fun, especially when Jan Spivey Gilchrist, author/illustrator Ashley Bryan and I do programs together.
Don: What is on the horizon? What can your readers look forward to in the future?
Eloise: I can’t talk about works in progress. As much as possible, the words and ideas have to stay compressed in my head. But on the horizon is a picture book. A few years ago, I showed Jan Spivey Gilchrist a photo of my three grandsons, so that she could see how much they had grown. She immediately saw brotherly friendships, in their postures and facial expressions. She said we had to do a book about brothers. Later, we expanded the concept to include sisters, as well. Brothers and Sisters: Family Poems (HarperCollins) will be published in December 2008.
Don: Speaking of Jan Spievy Gilchrist, I’m a big fan of hers, and I loved the portrait she painted of you on the author’s note of In The Land of Words. Very nice.
Thank you for your time.