When Eloise Greenfield was young, her teachers in D.C. public schools probably never suspected she would become an internationally known children's author. And neither did she.
"I have to say, I never thought of being a writer. I hated it in school when we had to write. I hated to give my feelings," Greenfield, 53, recalled during an interview in her Northeast Washington home.
But in the past 10 years, Greenfield, 53, has published 17 picture books, novels and biographies for children. Her awards include the first Carter G. Woodson Award given by the National Council for the Social Studies for her biography "Rosa Parks," the 1976 international Jane Addams Book Award for "Paul Robeson," and the 1978 Coretta Scott King Award for "African Dream." In 1979, Greenfield was one of the writers representing the United States at the Second Annual International Conference of Children's Writers in Moscow as part of the United Nations' International Year of the Child.
Born in Parmele, N.C., Greenfield grew up in Washington. Her family lived in Langston Terrace, one of the nation's first public housing facilities located at 21st Street and Benning Road NE, and she remembers her childhood as one more filled with the musical arts than the literary genre.
"My mother was into the arts," she said, attributing her cultural development to her parents, who were known for organizing musical and theatrical activities for the children of Langston Terrace.
After attending Miner Teachers College, which later became D.C. Teachers College and then merged into the University of the District of Columbia, she worked as a clerk-typist in the U.S. Patent Office.
Bored with her work, she began composing rhymes for a television program, "Songs for Sale," which "invited the public to send in songs to be performed on the air," she said.
Although her songs were returned and the program was soon canceled, Greenfield said it was through her attempts at songwriting that she "found out how exciting it was to play with words."
Her already sparkling eyes flash in recollection of that moment of creative awakening. A light brown-skinned woman, not quite plump, with a short Afro barely touched with gray, Greenfield sits poised in charm-school posture with crossed ankles and folded hands as she describes her long, slow effort to become a published author.
The wife of a retired Navy procurement specialist and mother of Steve, 31, and Monica, 24, she was in her thirties when her first work, a poem, was published on the editorial page of the Hartford (Conn.) Times in 1962.
In the ensuing decade, Greenfield's short stories were published in the now defunct Negro Digest, later known as Black World. It was during this period that she decided to try writing children's literature. The result was her first book, "Bubbles," which was published in 1972 by a now defunct local black publishing house, Drum & Spear Press, after it had been rejected by 10 other publishing houses.
Greenfield said her ideas come from building yarns around inanimate objects, such as a squeak in her piano; from thinking young; or simply from observing children and imagining their thoughts.
"I saw a little boy turning in slow circles as he went down the street," she said smiling. "I don't know what he was thinking, but that child will find his way into one of my books."
Other works, such as "Keepsake," from her first book of poetry "Honey, I Love," are based on incidents from her own childhood. The poem tells of 5-year-old Eloise attending a wake for a neighbor who died suddenly.
"When the widow saw how grieved I was, she gave me a penny saying he the man who died wanted me to have it," she said. Although she acknowledges it was probably just the widow's way of comforting a confused child learning about death, the experience, with a few changes, became "Keepsake": Before Mrs. Williams Died She told Mr. Williams When he gets home To get a nickel out of her Navy blue pocketbook And give it to her Sweet little gingerbread girl That's me I ain't never going to spend it!
Greenfield has coauthored two books with her mother. One, "Childtimes," contains the childhood remembrances of three generations of her family. Another work, "Alesia," was written with her teen-age neighbor Alesia Rives, a UDC student who was confined to a wheelchair for several years following an automobile accident.
Greenfield believes black authors have a responsibility to all children to make sure their works reflect life the way it really is and not "only emphasizing the negative" aspects of black life.
"We must try to inspire them to care about themselves," she said. "We must give them a sense of the black family and its strength."
Greenfield said she tries to let children know that if they have a problem at home or at school it should not control their lives.
"It is important that they know there is someone they can go to for help," she said. "They don't have much control over their lives, but they have some."
She offered the following suggestions for parents in choosing children's books:
Read the book. Children's books are not as simple as they look. Most adults look at the pictures without reading the book.
Analyze the book. Make sure the values are positive and the image of black life is balanced.
Use reviews. A useful aid is Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, which publishes reviews of children's books emphasizing possible sexist and racist overtones. The bulletin is published eight times a year by the New York-based Council on Interracial Books for Children.
Although the number of books written for black children increased in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Greenfield said black children's literature is on the decline.
"Children's books don't get the kind of promotion that adult books do" and black children's books receive even less, she said. As a rule, she added, books for black children are not reprinted as often as other children's books (which are reprinted about once every five years), so many of the best books are out of print.
During the black literary boom that began in the '60s, government grants, the bloodline of the children's book market, were more plentiful, Greenfield said, but recent economic cutbacks in grants to libraries and schools have seriously reduced the traditional market for children's books.
In the early '70s, Greenfield, like many other local artists, was a member of the now inactive D.C. Black Writers Workshop. She emphasized the importance of that association to what she calls "the movement," in which black authors and illustrators were dedicated to producing quality books with realistic situations for black children.
Greenfield's most recent work, a recorded version of her 1978 "Honey, I Love," features a group of District youths reciting the poetry to a background of traditional jazz. Directed by musician and WPFW-FM radio station programmer Byron Morris, the album includes a monologue by Greenfield on what she calls that "powerful African-American music" -- jazz.
"After I decided I wanted to put the words on a record," she said, "I decided to put it with jazz because children do not hear enough of it jazz . And it is so important to our culture."
The album, which is available in selected stores and through direct mail distribution, was produced with her own funds and a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Although Greenfield is pleased with the record, now in its third pressing, she admits, "if I had known what it was like, how many stages it had to go through , I probably would not have attempted it."
"It's really like having a baby," she said, smiling.