From midnight to 5 a.m., when traffic on 13th Street NE has slowed to a trickle and the quiet is as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold winter night, that's when author Eloise Greenfield is in her muse.

In the predawn stillness, she types away at a computer in her dining room, dreaming up storybook characters such as Nathaniel B. Free, a 9-year-old rapper; Janell, a preschooler with an imaginary playmate; and Darlene, a disabled child who learns how to enjoy life as it comes.

"It's the kind of quiet that you can pull around you and wrap yourself up in," Greenfield said at her home in Michigan Park. "It's almost as if I'm . . . not here. The phone's not going to ring . . . . I can go back to my childhood, to those feelings and remember."

And recollect she does.

Drawing on her feelings as a child growing up in the Langston Terrace housing project in Northeast, Greenfield translates everyday childhood experiences into warm and intimate stories about youngsters struggling to cope.

The stories revolve around such real-life issues as divorce, money problems and growing pains. And the books often are dedicated to friends and schoolchildren who were her inspirations.

"She kind of takes warm thoughts and feelings and brings them out, brings them home for you no matter what age you are," said Julee Thompson, 35, a new author who said she idolizes Greenfield. "She's a Washingtonian. There's so much in her books about Washington that speaks just to us. She didn't forget us or her home town."

At age 61, Greenfield has won several writing awards, including the prestigious Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award last summer for "Nathaniel Talking". But her start in the early 1960s was little more than an attempt to escape boredom on the job as a clerk typist for the U.S. Patent Office.

She had dropped out of Miner Teachers College after 2 1/2 years studying elementary education, but soon found that secretarial work was just as much a misfit, she said. Gradually, she began to experiment with words.

"I had never liked to write, but I loved reading," she said. "I wrote three short stories. I sent them out. They were rejected and I decided that I didn't have that talent and I would think of something else to do . . . . {Eventually} I learned that rejections are to be expected."

In fact, her first book, "Bubbles," was turned down 10 times before finally being published in 1972. That was followed by a biography of Rosa Parks in 1973; a children's novel, "Sister," in 1974; and a picture book, "She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl," the same year.

Altogether, she has written more than 20 books, including several volumes of children's poetry.

Readers "see themselves in the poetry," said Rabia Al Nur, owner of the new Natural Reflections bookstore in Takoma Park, which specializes in multicultural children's books. "Even if it's not themselves, it strikes a chord with them that reminds them of their own childhood."

Before Mrs. Williams died

She told Mr. Williams

When he gets home

To get a nickel out of her

Navy blue pocketbook

And give to her

Sweet little gingerbread girl

That's me

I ain't never going to spend it From "Keepsake" in "Honey, I Love"

"Eloise Greenfield is one of {our} most popular authors," said Hodari Abdul-Ali, owner of Pyramid bookstores. "I consider her a living legend."

William Morris, a spokesman for HarperCollins Children's Books, based in New York City, said his firm has long viewed her books as market assets.

"They sell very well," he said. "It's a rare author who has 10 books still in print at one publishing house."

But despite her critical and commercial success, Greenfield said it has been a struggle for a black author of books about black characters.

But times are changing.

Next summer, Black Butterfly Children's Books in New York City will publish four of her books, and she is working on another: an as-yet untitled story about a 12-year-old girl struggling to develop her own philosophy on life.

Greenfield said more and more African American parents today want to buy their children books with black characters to help offset negative stereotypes they encounter.

Booksellers estimate that sales of children's books are up 118 percent nationally over last year, while sales of multicultural books have increased more than 200 percent.

"I don't want to show life as being sugarcoated. I want to give a balanced picture. Everybody has faults and everybody has problems," Greenfield said. "I think that African American people have not been depicted as having the kind of strength that we have."

So along the way, Greenfield has influenced other black writers, including her mother, the late Lessie Jones Little, to write children's books. Together, she and her mother produced a three-generation memoir about the women in their family.

"Her books speak directly to children. They are not condescending. They capture a universality that very few people have been capable of doing," Morris said.

"They are very warm portraits, tender portraits, of children going throughout their day," said Sharon Bell Mathis, a librarian at Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center in Southeast. "It just makes you feel that our children are safe in her arms."

To prepare herself to start a new project, Greenfield said she lets go of outside pressure, frees her mind to travel to a world where her characters are very much alive, then stays there awhile.

"My characters never {talk to me}, although they are aware of my presence and allow me to stay," she once wrote. "And though they don't understand this strange behavior, they accept it with good humor {as if to say,} 'If she don't have nothing better to do than to watch us, just don't pay her no mind.' And they go on about their business."