Friday, September 03, 2021

Remembering Eloise Greenfield

Last month we lost a giant in the world of poetry for children: Eloise Greenfield. I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to her work and her life. I've been a fan for a long time and included her in my reference book, Poetry People. Here's an excerpt from that book.

Eloise Greenfield was born on May 17, 1929, in Parmele, North Carolina. She attended Miner Teachers College (now University of the District of Columbia), was married, and had two children. She worked in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. Patent Office and with  the District of Columbia Black Writers' Workshop for several years. Her hobbies include listening to music and playing the piano. She has won a multitude of awards including American Library Association Notable Book citations, the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Council on Interracial Books for Children award for her body of work, Coretta Scott King Award, the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and many lifetime achievement awards. You can find out more in the obituaries from Publishers Weekly here or in The New York Times here and in The Washington Post here. You can also find an interview with her at the The Brown Bookshelf here and a terrific profile by Rudine Sims Bishop for Language Arts here.

Eloise Greenfield is an acclaimed writer of prose and poetry for younger readers whose work is recognized for presenting strong portraits of loving African American families. Greenfield has authored books of poetry, picture books, biography, memoir, board books and more, many of which have been illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. She teamed with her mother to create Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, an autobiographical work that describes the childhood memories of Greenfield, her mother, and her maternal grandmother.

Greenfield’s first collection of poetry for children, Honey, I Love, and Other Love Poems (HarperCollins 1978), describes the experiences of a young black girl and deals with relationships involving family, friends, and schoolmates. This popular Reading Rainbow book is an amazing masterpiece from a poet who captures the unique dimensions of the African American experience (such as in her homage “Harriet Tubman”), while also tapping into the universal experiences of childhood (expressed in the wondering poem “By Myself”). From its small trim size to the Dillons’ inviting black, white, and gold illustrations, these sixteen short poems capture feelings of love, grief, pride, and pleasure—all from the point of view of a child. It was republished as a stand-alone picture book with the same title by HarperCollins in 2003.

The poem, “Harriet Tubman” is strong and rhythmic narrative poem that invites children to join in on the repeated refrain which begins “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff.” Pair Greenfield’s poem with “The Conductor was a Woman” by Carole Boston Weatherford in Remember The Bridge: Poems of a People (Philomel 2002). This volume even includes a sepia-tone photograph of Tubman. Follow up with a picture book version of Harriet Tubman’s life, Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (Dial 1996) by Alan Schroeder, beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Older children may also enjoy the nonfiction book, Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman? by Patricia McKissack and Fredrick McKissack (1992). Read aloud the chapter "Free Belle" or "Ain't I a Woman?" to lure readers in the middle grades to read the rest of her story on their own. Each of these chapters function as a story in itself about this fascinating woman and the times she lived in, first as a slave, then as a free woman.

Harriet Tubman (in Honey I Love)

by Eloise Greenfield

Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff

Wasn't scared of nothing neither

Didn't come in this world to be no slave

And wasn't going to stay one either


"Farewell!" she sang to her friends one night

She was mighty sad to leave 'em

But she ran away that dark, hot night

Ran looking for her freedom


She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods

With the slave catcher right behind her

And she kept on going till she got to the North

Where those mean men couldn't find her


Nineteen times she went back South

To get three hundred others

She ran for her freedom nineteen times

To save black sisters and brothers


Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff

Wasn't scared of nothing neither

Didn't come in this world to be no slave

And didn't stay one either

And didn't stay one either

In her poetry, Greenfield tries to involve children in their own worlds. In Night on Neighborhood Street (Dial 1991), Greenfield brings her young readers into the happenings around them examining the life of an urban community. The volume's seventeen poems show children in typical situations, including attending church and playing games with their families. Link this book with Carole Boston Weatherford’s collection, Sidewalk Chalk; Poems of the City (Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press 2001) with poems about the laundromat, local diner, city market, barbershop or Lilian Moore’s Mural on Second Avenue and Other City Poems (Candlewick 2005) which features poems about the city park, shop windows, skylines and bridges, and construction sites. Invite the children to list places they enjoy in their communities. What poems might they write to celebrate their favorite spots? 

Eloise Greenfield created a memorable character in her poetry book, Nathaniel Talking (Writers & Readers Publishing 1993) in which a nine year old boy shares his thoughts, dreams, and hopes in a series of first person poems. Match this collection with the Danitra Brown poetry books by Nikki Grimes for the girl’s point of view. And look for Janet Wong’s Good Luck Gold and Other Poems (Simon & Schuster 1994) and A Suitcase of Seaweed, and Other Poems (Simon & Schuster, 1996) for more child perspectives on growing up in America. 


by Eloise Greenfield

one day I was dumb enough

to let somebody bet me

into a fight

and then I was mad with two

stupid boys

the one who was hitting me

and the one who was hitting


For another view on culture, share Greenfield’s Under the Sunday Tree (HarperCollins 1988), a celebration of life in the Bahamas. Complement these poems with anthologies assembled by Caribbean poets John Agard and Grace Nichols or consider Under The Breadfruit Tree: Island Poems (Boyds Mills Press 1998) by Monica Gunning. 

For one more poem gem by Eloise Greenfield, don't miss "Things" from

often performed with gusto by Ashley Bryan, a legend himself!

Things  (in Honey I Love)

by Eloise Greenfield

Went to the corner

Walked in the store

Bought me some candy

Ain't got it no more

Ain't got it no more


Went to the beach

Played on the shore

Built me a sandhouse

Ain't got it no more

Ain't got it no more 

Went to the kitchen

Lay down on the floor

Made me a poem

Still got it

Still got it

Eloise Greenfield published nearly 50 books for young people and influenced a generation of poets. Her poetry is strong in sound, rhyme and rhythm-- so fun to read aloud. Plus she represents the experience of African American children, families, and history, from ordinary daily life to historic heroes. She once said, I want to give children a true knowledge of black heritage, including both the African and the American experiences. The distortions of black history have been manifold and ceaseless. A true history must be the concern of every black writer. It is necessary for black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present, in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future. I would say she definitely achieved this goal! Look for her books and share her poetry now! Here are a few of my favorites: 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1977. Africa Dream. New York: John Day Co. Reprinted, New York: HarperTrophy, 1992.

Greenfield, Eloise. 1978. Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1988. Nathaniel Talking. New York: Black Butterfly Children's Books. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1988. Under the Sunday Tree. New York: Harper & Row. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1993. Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Greenfield, Eloise. 1996. Night on Neighborhood Street. New York: Puffin Pied Piper. Reprinted, Jacksonville, IL: Bound to Stay Bound, 1999.

Greenfield, Eloise. 2004. In the Land of Words. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2006. The Friendly Four. Ill. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2008. Brothers and Sisters: Family Poems. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins.

Greenfield, Eloise. 2011. The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Ill. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2019. Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me. Ill. by Ehsan Abdollahi. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky.

Now head on over to My Juicy Little Universe where poet and teacher Heidi Mordhorst is hosting our Poetry Friday gathering!


Linda Mitchell said...

A wonderful post! Thank you for this summary/look into Greenfield's career.

laurasalas said...

What a great look at such a meaningful life. I've heard Ashley Bryan perform Things--a real treat--haha. But that Tubman poem. Mercy. Talk about a poem begging to be read aloud. I can hear her voice like she's standing right here. Thanks, Sylvia!

Mary Lee said...

We've lost so many of the Greats this year...thanks for this rememberance.

Susan T. said...

Sylvia, this is a wonderful guide to Eloise Greenfield's work. Thank you. I was really sad to hear of her passing.

Linda B said...

A sad goodbye yet she left us with so much wealth in her books. My son's name is Nathaniel & we bought this book for him, to show another point of view from another 'special' Nathaniel. I used Honey I Love so many times with students, about how Eloise Greenfield was a wonderful conveyor of emotions. Thanks, Sylvia!

Alan j Wright said...

Sylvia, your comprehensive post is a most fitting tribute to Eloise Greenfield. I became acquainted with her writing of poetry while working in New York and eventually returned home to Australia with several of her books. I, like you are saddened by her passing. I share make a point of revisiting her work this coming week.

Elisabeth said...

What a legacy she leaves behind her. Thank you for this post Sylvia - I love how you've suggested additional books to pair with hers. You've presented us with a delicious, curated menu of books to enjoy together.

Ruth said...

I love that Harriet Tubman poem. I hadn't heard that Eloise Greenfield had died. Thank you for remembering her in your lovely post.

Bridget Magee said...

I'm sorry the world lost Eloise's voice, but glad we have the legacy of her work. Thanks for sharing this comprehensive list of her books for us to seek out, Sylvia. :)

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Sylvia, this is a precious post for a great poet and for all of us who want to remember her. Can you imagine, this is the first time I learned that she had roots here in the DC community...I always assumed NYC, where I first encountered her work! Thank you.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you all for sharing my love and appreciation of Eloise Greenfield's poetry-- such a beautiful legacy!