Her face contorts involuntarily. Author Eloise Greenfield, a participant in the National Black Child Development Institute, is talking about Words by Heart, a popular children's book considered by some authors and groups -- including the Council on Interracial Books for Children, the National Council of Churches and the Harlem Writers' Guild -- to be one of the most racist books on the market.
In one scene, a black father dies trying to save the life of the white man who had shot him in a jealous rage. Why didn't you try to save yourself, asks the dying man's 12-year-old daughter. He responds: "I never thought of it."
"That's the way some people would like black people to see themselves," snaps Greenfield. "In this selfless image."
Greenfield, 52; Sharon Bell Mathis, 44, and Ophelia Settle Egypt, 79, are three Washington writers recognized as leaders in children's literature by NBCDI, an 11-year-old non-profit organization headquartered in Washington.
Some of their comments:
Greenfield, winner of the international Jane Addams Children's book award and author of such books as Daydreamers (The Dial Press, $9.95); Childtimes (Thomas Y. Crowell, $7.95), a three-generation memoir co-authored with her mother, and Alesia (Philomel Books, $9.95), a true-life story of a Washington neighbor crippled in a traffic accident at age 9 who learns to walk again at 19.
"Writing became a mission. I learned how desperate the situation was because of the scarcity of books for black children, and the racism in many of the books that existed . . . I feel it's important we reflect accurately on all aspects of black life, the positive and the negative."
Egypt, author of the Biography of James Weldon Johnson (Thomas Y. Crowell, $3.95): "What got me into the Black Writer's Workshop was a project I did at Fisk. I interviewed more than 100 ex-slaves from 1929-31. What I'm doing now is editing some of the interviews for children.
"I want to focus on two things: that black children, no matter what their social status, really need to stick together, and don't let other people set your goals . . . don't let them turn you around."
Mathis, head librarian at Friendship Learning Center in Southeast Washington and author of The Hundred Penny Box (Viking Press, $5.95), winner of the Newbery Medal:
"I can't afford to make a mistake about the books I select for these children. While they're in this building I'm going to try to select books that celebrate their lives, whether they're black children or white children.
"I was very fortunate because my parents are great readers. They were very concerned about black history. I didn't realize until I was much older what they were doing. I just took it for granted that black people could write, I'd been reading black authors all my life.
"We have to celebrate each other more. My books are celebrating the strength of what's there already." CAPTION: Picture 1 and Illustration 2, "No matter what happens," Mr. Johnson said before he left his son, "don't give up your seat." From "JamesWeldon Johnson" by OPhelia Settle Egypt. Illustration from the book, by Moneta Barnette; Picture 2 and Illustration 2, They will not be the same after this growing time, this dreaming. In their stillness they have moved forward toward womanhood toward manhood. This dreaming has made them new. From "Daydreamers," by Eloise Greenfield Illustration by Tom Feelings from the book; Picture 3 and Illustration 3, " . . . This is a new life for her, Mike. You must help her have this new life and not just let her go backwards to something she can never go back to." From "The Hundred Penny Box," by Sharon Bell Mathis Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon, from the book; Design by Carol Porter -- The Washington Post