When she was a very young woman, Eloise asked her grandma to tell her stories about growing up in the countryside of North Carolina. Eloise was born there, too—in a little place called Parmele. In her grandparents' day, the Parmele lumber mill provided lots of work for people. But with the trees gone and the mill just a memory, the mostly black families who lived there got by as best they could.
Children in her mama's family were hired out to harvest tobacco and other crops in the fall, even though they really should have been in school. Families just needed that money. Eloise's mama remembered times as a child when she was so hungry she'd be too tired to play. Her daddy worked at whatever he could. He cleared weeds from the railroad tracks. He worked on farms. He worked at train stations, toting luggage. He worked on the docks near their later home, a black neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia.
There might not have been enough money in the family, but there sure was a lot of love. There was love enough to raise the children to be strong and to give love in return to their own children. Eloise and her family before her were surrounded not only by the love of their families. They were also nestled in strong, black communities.
When Eloise Greenfield was born on May 17, 1929, America was just about to hit the tailspin of the Great Depression. Looking for a better chance for work, her family moved to Washington, D.C. Those were the times of separate schools and separate public facilities for blacks and whites. It was a wonderful day when she and her cousins moved into a new low-rent housing project for blacks called Langston Terrace. Eloise had a good childtime (her grandma's word for childhood) there:
"For us, Langston Terrace wasn't an in-between place. It was a growing-up place. Neighbors who cared, family and friends, and a lot of fun. Life was good. Not perfect, but good. We knew about problems, heard about them, lived through some hard ones ourselves, but our community wrapped itself around us, put itself between us and the hard knocks, to cushion the blows." —Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir
It was while she was on long, summertime trips to visit her grandparents in North Carolina that she experienced racism in a scary way. Road crews of black men, dressed in old-fashioned black and white prison uniforms, would be working away, all the time watched by white men with guns. For this young and impressionable girl, it was the men with the guns and not the prisoners who were frightening.
Eloise came of age in the 1940s and 1950s. Having just finished teacher's college and newly-married to a young man she had known since childhood, Eloise started a job with the government's patent office. She later took a position with the Unemployment Compensation Board and soon enough she became bored. She decided to try her hand at writing. She wasn't successful at first, but she kept at it.
Over the years many of her more than 30 books have earned national awards and honors. Africa Dream (1978) won the Coretta Scott King Award for both its writing and its illustration. She also received Coretta Scott King Honor Awards for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir (1980), Nathaniel Talking (1990), and Night on Neighborhood Street (1992, for both story and illustration). In 2005, In the Land of Words won the NCTE's award for Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts.
Wanting to share her love of stories with young children, Eloise became one of the first black writers to write for black families. For the very youngest, she created board books: My Doll, Keshia, My Daddy and I…, and Big Friend, Little Friend. She wrote biographies as well as fiction, giving young black readers information on several black heroes: Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Michael Jordan.
But Mrs. Greenfield mostly writes about families. Her stories for young ones, such as Grandmama's Joy, William and the Good Old Days, She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl, and Honey, I Love are comforting and reinforce the strength that comes from family and friends. Older children can read stories on more complicated family problems.
In Sister, thirteen-year-old Doretha faces family problems. Her sister and her mother are fighting. Doretha loves her sister, but she doesn't want to grow up to be like her, to make her mama cry. But as she looks over her diary of all the things that have happened to their family in the last three years, she begins to understand a little of why her sister is the way she is. Talk About a Family finds a girl named Genny thinking that when her big brother Larry comes home from the army, he will be able to make everything all right. When that doesn't happen, Genny is devastated. When everything seems broken, is there still a family?
Always, always the author's family's strength and memories are at work in her books. Her dedication in Sister reads:
For my father Weston W. Little, Sr.
who scuffled to feed us
and still found time
to bounce us on his knee
For my mother Lessie B. Little
Her life is a gentle Black joy/love song.
Learn More about Eloise Greenfield Online:
Author Interview: Eloise Greenfield
In this interview, the author talks of some of her books: Childtimes, In the Land of Words, and I Can Draw a Weeposaur.
Eloise Greenfield, from Scholastic.com
A recounting of some of the highlights of her career.
PowerSearch: Eloise Greenfield
CRRL cardholders can use these databases to find articles from online reference sources: Biography Resource Center, Literature Resource Center, Professional Collection, and Infotrac Student Edition.