In-depth Written Interview

with Eloise Greenfield

Eloise Greenfield, interviewed in Washington, DC on April 26, 2011.

TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the recipient of the Bank Street Children's Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, among many other accolades over decades of writing for children. When did you begin writing?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I fell in love with books before kindergarten, but my writing didn't begin until I was in my twenties. I never thought about it because when I was in school, I just wrote what the teacher assigned. I never felt the urge to write until I was out of school.

I have been a people watcher since I was a small child. I had no idea that my interest in observing people meant anything. But it has come in very handy; I feel I was born to write. I see that human beings are alike in many ways but also individuals. We're not clones, so when I write about characters I want them to be individuals. It's the same way I view real people.

My first book was published in 1972. I had some earlier work, such as short stories and things like that, but that was when my first book came out.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What was your writing like when you were a student?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I was very shy, so I didn't write about what was important to me, nor about what I felt. My family used to go to the Watergate Outdoor Theater. A ship was the stage. The atmosphere was beautiful: the stars were out, and the music was wonderful. I would never have written about that in school.

If a teacher asked a question, I would write as few words as possible, and my writing was terribly stiff. No one would have recognized that I would one day be a writer. I was a good student, but I was not free enough to be creative.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What was your childhood like?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I was born in Parmele, North Carolina, but my family moved to Washington D.C. when I was four months old. We were part of the Great Migration of 1929. We used to go back to North Carolina every summer for a few days to visit grandparents and other family, but Washington is where I grew up. I attended four elementary schools because we were moving a lot, trying to get a better place to live.

The Depression was the main reason that my parents decided to move. Jobs were so hard to get where they were living. Some of their friends and relatives had already moved to Washington, and they really were glad they joined them there.

Most of my childhood was spent in a low-rent housing project. It was one of the first in the country: Langston Terrace Northeast. A lot of us are still in touch. We loved growing up there.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What did you do for fun?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I loved reading. When I wasn't outside playing, I was reading. I did my homework, but I wasn't that studious otherwise. I loved poetry and fiction. My father would drive us to the library once a week, but once we moved to Langston Terrace, I could just run over to the library in the apartment building and get a stack of books.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Historically, there were very few books that featured African American characters in stories.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I've heard people say that, as children, they missed having books about African Americans, but I didn't know that the books were about anybody in particular because most of the art was line drawings. Nobody had skin the color of white paper, so I never saw anybody in real life who looked like the people in books. I just thought they were book people; characters. They didn't represent real people. So I never felt left out.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Each of the books you have written depicts some sort of African American experience.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Yes. As time went on, the art in books changed and became more figurative and not so much line drawings. By the time my children were born, I could see how African American children could miss seeing themselves in books. I wanted them to see their reflections and see how beautiful they are and how wonderful their lives are sometimes.

So, part of the reason that I focus on African Americans in my literature is to have African Americans represented. But, the other reason is it's just me—writing about my life.

TEACHINGBOOKS: How do you make connections to social justice issues in your books?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I believe that whatever we're doing, we're making a contribution or we're destroying something. Our work influences what goes on in the world, so I keep that in mind all the time: what do I want to give? What is my mission?

There are so many problems to choose from that need attention. So, one of my major goals is to be humane. I think that's what we should be doing in all of our endeavors. Certainly, people in the arts who have a lot of influence on the children who read their books or see their art create the environment. We help to create the environment for them, so I think it's our responsibility to make it a healthy one.

TEACHINGBOOKS: How do you reflect back on some of the things you've seen in terms of civil rights and changes in that area?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: It's been a progression. But the courage of African American people has not been talked about enough—how we have continuously struggled to receive equal treatment and to be treated humanely, especially in our own country.

In The Great Migration: Journey to the North, I really wanted to focus on the courage of people to just pick up and leave home as well as the courage of the people who stayed in places where there was violence.

It's universal; people are very courageous. They don't just stay down. They get up. They may have to take some time out, but at some point, they recuperate from the pain, they get themselves together, and they move on.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What have you learned as an African American observer of people for seven decades?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: It is very important to me that people understand the individuality of human beings so that we don't all put everybody in the same basket. For example, when I talk about Langston Terrace where I grew up, people get an image of drugs and crime. But that didn't exist in the 1940s.

What was life like at that time and in that place? There was very little crime. There were no guns on the street. There were no drugs being sold on the street. When I was a young teen, there was a teenage boy that the other boys said smoked marijuana. He was unusual. I used to stare at him because I couldn't imagine what that meant. It was a different world in many ways than the world today. Growing up in a low-rent housing project did not mean what it means now. It was a really joyful experience.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share a personal experience from the Civil Rights Movement.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I remember the day that The Supreme Court passed the School Integration Law. It was May 17, 1954. My birthday. I was at work, and when we heard the news, the white people there froze. They were very upset and disappointed, but they didn't voice it. There were three of us African Americans. We didn't talk about it aloud, but we were overjoyed with the decision.

Here in Washington, there was no segregation in public transportation, but there was segregation in everything else, which was odd. It had to do with some of the African American people who were pushing for equality. That was one of the concessions the government made: that there would not be segregation on the streetcars.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Your picture book, Africa Dream, focuses on ancestors, showing readers that courage is not just something happening today.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: People who have gone through terrible, terrible struggles and inhumane treatment don't just accept it forever.

I wrote a poem about Harriet Tubman, but I didn't mean she was the only person who did anything. People were escaping. It was almost universal. That's why they had to pass the Fugitive Slave Law. There was activity going on all the time, and I think it's not talked about enough.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share the circumstances during which you wrote Africa Dream.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: It was in the late 1960s, and people were wearing dashikis and natural hairdos, and we were immersed in all things "Africa" and reconnecting with our African past with joy. I took African dance lessons as a part of that. Years later, Africa Dream grew out of my having been immersed in African culture. I loved writing it.

TEACHINGBOOKS: There are a lot of parents in your books, and their love is always present. Yet, there are some real challenges around them, too.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I'm trying to bring some balance to the body of literature because so much of it is concerned with the stereotype of parents who don't care about their children. There are so many parents who do, but they're not often in the public discourse. They're almost erased.

Also, the subject comes up often about African American children who are criminals. We need to give as much attention to the children who are doing well so they know we see them, and they see themselves. I think that I'm trying to help bring a balance to that.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share an example of a book that brings balance to the stereotypes so often seen.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: In Grandpa's Face I wanted to show that there are so many extended families. From the African American point of view, I wanted Grandpa to be someone that we haven't seen much of. I made him an actor, because there are so many African American actors whose names we don't know. Acting is not an unusual career for African American people, but we don't see enough of them in children's literature.

TEACHINGBOOKS: You wrote the poignant and beautiful Child Times with your mom. It reflects the experiences of extended family and the multiple generations in a lot of African Americans' lives.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Child Times is very close to my heart because it's about family and people that I'm close to. It is also special to me because my mother and I wrote it together, and my mother is now deceased.

My father and mother were childhood friends, so he contributed a lot from his memories. My grandmother was already dead at the time that we got the idea to do the book, but we had some material that she had written that we were able to draw from as well.

On a personal level, I wanted to write about my family. It is one family, but it can represent many families. I wanted to be very specific, but many people have said that it reminds them of their childhoods and their families, even though they lived in Texas or California or different places.

Child Times is about what people are, and what people do when they give to each other and sometimes take from each other.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share the experience of writing a book with your mother.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: When I began getting published, I used to send copies of my work to my grandmother. When she came to Washington to live with my parents after she became ill, she showed me what she had been writing as a result of the things that I had sent her. She had started to write about her life, about her childhood, and we put it together as a little booklet for her for Mother's Day. She was so thrilled. After my grandmother died, my mother and I got the idea to do Child Times because my mother had started writing, too. It was the three of us in line. My mother told me later that she had written one story when we were children and sent it out. It was rejected, so she didn't write again—until Child Times.

TEACHINGBOOKS: You've written about incredible historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, and many others. Why do you write about historical people?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Biography, to me, is a way of establishing real people who have done real things—important things that need to be noted. That's why I do that.

Paul Robeson had so many lives and did so many things and accomplished so much in so many areas. I could have gone on forever; I just cut it off at a certain point because I would never have written the book.

How They Got Over: African Americans and the Call of the Sea is a book of short biographies about African Americans who have been connected with the sea as ship captains and various things.

Biography is harder for me than fiction or poetry because there's so much misinformation out there. In my research, I have to sort through and try to figure out what's true and what's not true. It gets very frustrating at times. I love making up things, so fiction and poetry are hard, but not as hard as biography.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share the origins of Alesia.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Alesia is a diary I co-wrote with Alesia Revius who was paralyzed when she was hit by a car while riding a bike. She was nine when she was hit. When I asked if I could do the book with her, she was 17 and in a wheelchair. I thought that young people would be interested in hearing her story and knowing of her courage and humor.

TEACHINGBOOKS: You co-created a tribute to Michael Jordan called Michael and Me.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Yes. I wrote the verse and Jan Spivey Gilchrist made the paintings. We wanted children to know how talented they are—that everyone has talents, and that everyone can do things. We wanted to give them the strength to overcome some difficulties that they might have, so we used Michael Jordan as an example of a person who had to work hard in order to play basketball—who honed his skills.

In high school, Michael wasn't a good player, but he practiced for hours and hours and hours and developed his talent. In the book, two children do the same thing: they find their path and do what they need to do.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What is notable for you about working with illustrators?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: In picture books, the illustrations are so important to my writing process. As I write, I envision people and scenes, but I don't see anything close to what the illustrator will do to make the images more complex and more beautiful. Sometimes the illustrations extend what the author has said, and that's wonderful. A lot of my work is about people and people's feelings, and that's what they bring out in their illustrations.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Does it help to have had a rapport with one particular illustrator?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Sometimes the illustrator and I have come up with ideas together, and we've been very compatible. Sometimes I write text for a book where the illustrations come first. I did that with Tom Feelings's Daydreamers and Amos Ferguson's Under the Sunday Tree. When I wrote the text for those books, I wanted it to be true to what the artists had done. I did not want to contradict them in any way.

That's the way Jan Spivey Gilchrist and I work. When I write text to her illustrations and when she draws the illustrations to accompany my texts, we respect what the other person has already created, and we don't do anything to change that.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about the rhythm of language in your books.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: When I'm writing, I hear music in the words. I think all language has music. It has melody. When I'm writing poetry, I want to hear that melody. When certain words come to me as if by magic, I hear the music in them.

Then there are the words that don't come; I have to work for them. I have to work for that music and work for the meaning, the alliteration, the sounds—all of that. My writing is a combination of magical experience and struggling very hard to create something.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Your book of poetry, Honey, I Love is used in schools. Please talk about your poetry.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: For me, poetry is music. I loved music as a child. Music was just in our lives; it was and is a part of me. We had a piano, and we listened to music on the radio a lot. There was no TV, of course.

I just love what poets Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sterling Brown do. They can put words together and make them so much deeper. They can take them to a deeper place in your life, and for those moments you're in another place. That's what I want to do when I'm writing. You can be humorous, too. You can take it wherever you want it to go, but it's always music for me.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Please describe your writing process for the book Honey, I Love.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: In 1975 I wrote the title poem, and I sent that to an editor to consider it for a picture book. She said it didn't work as a picture book (incidentally, it was published as a picture book by another publisher). But she said, "I like the poem. Why don't you do a collection?" So that's what I did. I didn't have many books at that time, and writing professionally was still fairly new to me. I was very excited about doing it.

Honey, I Love is still a popular book. There are people who say they read Honey, I Love when they were children and are giving it to their children now.

TEACHINGBOOKS: You originally wrote Nathaniel Talking as a rap.

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I think that a lot of rappers would not consider Nathaniel Talking a piece of genuine rap. There's a lot about rap that I don't like, but the rhythms are intriguing. When I wrote Nathaniel's Rap, I wanted to use rap's rhythms, but to say something that I wanted to say. Then I fell in love with Nathaniel, and I had to do a whole book about him. In Nathaniel Talking there is a poem about jitterbug and a poem about the blues, too. Music and poetry—I cannot separate them. I love both of them so much.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Do you think of yourself as having a mission for your work?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: Yes, I do have a mission. I want to enjoy my life and do what I love to do as much as possible. But I also want to give something to children that will make them happy, teach them sometimes, make them think, and help them feel good about themselves. In other words, I want to give them books that are nourishing.

Finally, as an African American, I want to do whatever I can to help the situation, because we African Americans are still in some very dangerous territory here. Although it's improved, there's still a long way to go.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What would you like African American children of today to be particularly cognizant of?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: They need to care about themselves, to know that they have talents, to know that they come from a background of people who were courageous and talented and achieved many things. I think it's more difficult for African American children because we live in a society where there's a lot of racism.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I take little breaks. But most of the time, I just keep pushing. One of the things that I need to do to be productive is to have solitude—which is very hard to get, especially now that I am on Twitter.

There are so many things that call to me—some things I want to do, and some things are interference that take me away from that solitude. There is a place where I need to go; a world where my characters and the story are.

To help me get unstuck, sometimes I will make whatever I am writing the last thing I think about before I go to sleep so some work is being done overnight. When I wake up, sometimes I'll have the answer.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Is there such a thing as a typical workday for you?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: There used to be. After breakfast, I would start writing because sometimes things would come to me during the night. That was the ideal—to write all morning until I had to do something else. Then I'd have lunch, and then I'd write again. It was on and off all day.

Now I'm partially blind, so everything takes much longer than it used to, and I don't work as many hours. It takes me longer to do research, although I've got some really wonderful gadgets that help a lot. For my partial blindness, there's a gadget called EZ Reader that you connect to your TV set that is like a computer mouse, except a little larger. I run that mouse over the reading material, and it projects onto my TV screen in large letters. It's just wonderful. Also, I sometimes buy books from Kindle for PC and enlarge the letters enormously. My hearing aids help with my partial deafness.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I want them to have a love for literature, because I think it enriches one's life so much. They are all born with talents. The way to discover them is to learn as much as they can about many things and then see what feels right to them.

TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell teachers and librarians?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I just enjoy being with them. They are so fun. When I'm reciting a poem, I may have them march or have other audience participation. They love it, and they love to do that with children. I want them to feel the excitement of literature and to understand how a writer works. Sometimes they have questions for me. I just enjoy that interaction.

TEACHINGBOOKS: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you?

ELOISE GREENFIELD: I have a son and a daughter, and I'm a grandmother of four. My son has three boys, and my daughter has one daughter.

A lot of times people say that being a mother was an interruption to their work. My interruption was that I had a job outside the home when my children were young. I really, really did not want to go to work. I wanted to stay home and write and play with my children. Being a mother has been a wonderful part of my life.

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