Deborah Taylor and Eloise Greenfield
Deborah Taylor, retired from Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore Maryland, is herself a winner of the Coretta Scott King -Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. She moderated a discussion for Ms. Greenfield for the Children’s Book Guild in June 2019. Catherine Reef shared this report of that discussion in the September 2019 Guild newsletter….
“Two recipients of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement took the stage at Busboys and Poets on June 20, when Guild member Deborah Taylor interviewed author Eloise Greenfield about her life and work. Greenfield has published nearly 50 books for children, including poetry collections, picture books, biographies and fiction. Individually and as a group, they have earned her prestigious awards and honors—too many to count. Taylor, who recently retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, has served on several ALA award committees and teaches courses in young adult literature in the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies.
“Taylor began by leading Greenfield back to early childhood and her first connections with literature. Greenfield spoke of trips to the public library with her father and brothers. She mentioned that when her older brother was in first grade and starting to read, she learned alongside him at home. As a result, she entered first grade ready to tackle books on her own. Greenfield also recalled that her father loved to debate any topic, which meant that lively, wide-ranging discussions were part of family life. These conversations contributed to her love of words, she said.
“Growing up as an avid reader in Washington, DC, Greenfield had no youthful dreams of authorship, however. Rather, a boring job as a clerk typist in adulthood inspired her to try writing. She studied books on the writer’s craft, sent out her work and received numerous rejections, but never felt discouraged. “It’s a good thing I got accustomed to rejections,” she joked. In 1962, after 10 years of trying, she saw a poem of hers in print. It was about her love of music, specifically the sound of the violin. Short stories for adults in the then-popular Negro Digest followed, and in 1973 she published her first book, a children’s biography of Rosa Parks. Greenfield found a mission in writing for young readers, “to let children know how important they are, that they are loved,” she said, adding that she hopes especially to reach African American children with this message.
“Greenfield had much to say about music, about what she called the “musicality” of words. “I love hearing the sound of music in the words,” she said. “We talk in melody. When I write I want to capture that melody.” To help the audience hear that music, Taylor read from Greenfield’s recent book Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me, which includes poems in varied styles, from rap to free verse. Greenfield said that she most enjoys writing free verse, explaining, “I can put my music in it.” When asked to name writers who had influenced her, Greenfield stated that none had, although she expressed fondness for the work of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. “I looked to the craft,” she said, stressing that learning, practice and “the hard work of writing” were her keys to success.
“Eloise Greenfield, who turned 90 in May, continues to write and publish. Her newest book, The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives, will be released on September 1. Set during the Civil War, it explores through verse the lives of women who performed a valued and necessary role among the enslaved. Taylor spoke about a particularly powerful poem in which news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaches a midwife’s community while a baby is being born. The poem “shows people concerned about their freedom and also concerned about safety, about safely delivering the baby,” Taylor said. “It’s wonderful.”
Readers are encouraged to add their own condolences and recollections of Eloise Greenfield on the Children’s Book Guild Facebook page here.