One of our goals is to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) accomplished poets whose work is enjoyed by children or teens. We start with the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winners before moving on to other poets.
(American, b. 1929)
Eloise Greenfield was born in Parmele, North Carolina, on May 17, 1929. The second oldest of five children, she moved, as an infant, with her family to Washington, D.C. She studied piano as a child and teenager. She loved music, movies, and books. As a young wife and mother in her early twenties, while working as a clerk-typist at the U.S. Patent Office, Greenfield began a search for satisfying work. She found it in writing.
After several years of study and rejections from publishers, Greenfield had her first poem published in the Hartford Times in 1962. Her first book was published in 1972. She is now the author of more than 40 books for children—poetry, biography, picture books, and older fiction. She says her mission is twofold: (1) to contribute to the development of a large body of African American literature for children and (2) to continue to fill her life with the joy of creating with words.
Greenfield has received many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream and the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks. For Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, she received the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. She has received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little; the Hope S. Dean Award from the Foundation for Children’s Literature; the 1997 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children for her body of work; the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s North Star Award for lifetime achievement; and a lifetime achievement award from the Moonstone Celebration of Black Writing.
In 1999, Greenfield was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. Furthermore, In the Land of Words was named a 2005 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (Children’s Literature Assembly/NCTE). When the Horses Ride By and The Friendly Four were chosen for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2007 Choices. Most recently, The Great Migration: Journey to the North—illustrated by Greenfield’s frequent collaborator, Jan Spivey Gilchrist—was named a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book for 2012.
INTERVIEW BY STEVEN WITHROW
First, I’d like to go back to your poetic beginnings. I read your mother’s poems in Children of Long Ago last year, which led me to Childtimes. Both are beautiful books. Could you tell my readers a little about your mother and her writing, and the effect she had on your writing early on?
I’m happy that you like those two books. My mother’s work is precious to me. She didn’t begin writing until she was in her late sixties, years after I grew up and became a writer. Mama told me that when my siblings and I were small, she wrote one story that was rejected, and she didn’t try again. But she loved books, and she read to us. That was one of my early influences. Also, in my elementary school classes, we often read poems aloud, together, pretty much in the sing-song fashion of the time. I can still hear the melody of our voices, as we recited Stevenson’s poem, “The Swing.” Even so, I didn’t begin writing, except for school assignments, until I was in my early twenties, bored with my typing job and trying to think of another way to earn a living.
How much has your childhood, particularly your years in Langston Terrace, stayed with you in the poems you’ve through the years? As a corollary, do you write for the child you were then, or for today’s children?
I don’t write for the child that I was. That child is with me still, but I write with today’s children in mind. Most of my work is not autobiographical, though there are pieces of my life that I do include, from time to time. For example, the “flying pool,” “going down the country,” and the laughing children, in the poem, “Honey, I Love,” are all from my childhood, including wonderful memories of Langston Terrace, the low-rent housing project where I lived from age 9 to 21. I devote a chapter to Langston Terrace in Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir.
One thing I love about your work is how open you are about sharing strong and sometimes conflicting emotions with children. In what ways does poetry help children, even the youngest who cannot yet read, explore their own emotional experiences and those of others?
Thank you. Human beings are fascinating to me, our complexity, and especially our contradictions. I believe that, if children are able to see emotional conflicts in characters, it will help them to see themselves and accept their own emotions and to understand and empathize with other people, as well. These are important factors, but I never think about them when I’m writing. I think about trying to bring the characters to life, so that readers can see them, get to know them and become immersed in their lives.
Your poems show that you have a keen ear for musical language and a gift for unity in sound that Donald Hall calls “sound-form.” How much attention do you pay to consonants and vowels, rhythms and line breaks, rhymes and repetitions, while you’re composing? Is much of it instinctive for you?
I’m sure that some of it is instinctive, because we are all born with a connection to music, with our beating hearts and vocal cords. In my family, music was a constant, when I was growing up—on the radio, at concerts and stage shows, in school and church choirs. We had a piano. My two sisters and I took piano lessons, and both of my parents played—not well, but often!
However, the composing I do, in writing poetry, requires conscious thought and revision. I hear the music as I am writing, and I am not satisfied until I achieve the sounds I am seeking. I revise and revise until I think I have it right. I use all of the elements you mentioned, and I would add “melody” to the list, because our voices go up and down as we talk, even in ordinary conversation. I would also add “punctuation.” For example, a period in the wrong place can bring the music to a full stop, instead of the brief pause I may want and that a comma would elicit.
We are clearly facing a difficult market (some say a dire crisis) for publishing and selling children’s poetry collections and anthologies. Lee Bennett Hopkins said that only three new anthologies were published last year in the US. Do you see this as an especially troubling development, or is it a continual challenge for poets?
I see this as very troubling, but no more so than unemployment, generally, across the country. This is a rough period for millions of people, poets included, who can’t find enough work. I do think, though, that this is different from the earlier difficulties poets experienced in trying to build a wide audience. On my many visits with schoolchildren, teachers, librarians, and parents, I see a widespread and enormous love for poetry and excitement about reading and writing poems. An encouraging factor is the commercial and critical success of children’s poetry books before the economic crisis occurred.
Many teachers are wary of encouraging meter and rhyme, as they have been taught that formal poetry is out of fashion, while others merely use forms as tools to teach grammar and vocabulary. Are meter and rhyme still vital and essential, and what does formal poetry offer young readers and writers that free verse does not?
I feel that all forms of poetry are valuable and should be taught to children. Is the poem well-crafted? Is it nurturing? Does it touch the heart, mind, and/or spirit? I think these are the important criteria for determining what children should be taught. Fashions come and go, of course, but I think it’s up to parents and educators to see that what is of value survives for children.
Is your poetry a performance art? Is it best for children to read your poems aloud and “act out” the many voices? Are we missing some of your poetry’s power by simply reading silently or listening to another person’s voice?
I don’t see this as an either/or situation. One is theater; the other is reading. Both can elicit a range of experiences. They can be engrossing, enlightening, moving, deeply satisfying, fun, etc.—all the things we want when we experience the arts. Also, silent reading is not complete silence, in the way we usually think of it, as a total absence of sound. As we read, not our ears, but our minds “hear” the words, and if children have been read to, in their early years, they will be able to choose varying moods, tones, etc., for “hearing” the poet’s words. Children and adults can be drawn into a book, as well as into a performance.
When we read to children, we can see the signs that tell us they have gone into the world of the book. The signs are in their eyes, their breathing. At appropriate times, they will look sad or break into spontaneous laughter, and we know that we have reached them.
If you would, please pick a poem of your own and talk a little about how the poem works from a craft standpoint? How is the poem constructed or formed? What are some of its salient features in sound or image?
Near the end of The Great Migration: Journey to the North, there’s a part called “Question,” in which the travelers on a train are silently questioning their decisions to leave their homes and embark on new lives. The poem begins with their question, as the train gets close to its destination. The travelers’ thoughts then take on the rhythm of the train, moving from apprehension to courage, optimism and determination. As the train gradually slows, so do the travelers’ thoughts. At least, that was my intention, and I hope it comes through. The train and the thoughts come to a stop simultaneously, with the finality of the words, “Going to make it. No matter what.”
Could you talk a little about your process of arranging the structure and order of The Great Migration?
I wanted to tell the story of this movement chronologically, from the time the people in the South begin thinking about leaving, until they arrive in the North. At the same time, I wanted to go inside the movement and show some of the individuals who made this momentous trip. Why were they leaving? What were they thinking and feeling? Who and what did they have to leave behind? I wanted to show the courage it took for these people, in particular, and for people all over the world, to pick up and move when it became necessary, to do whatever they needed to do to survive and to make better lives for themselves and their children.
Are you generally optimistic about the future of poetry for young people from both a quality and a popularity standpoint? Will we see a resurgence of poems for kids in the years and decades to come, do you think?
I’m optimistic that the situation will improve. I hope it’s sooner than later. From a popularity standpoint, a substantial and enthusiastic audience is there, waiting. They just have to be able to buy food, clothing, and shelter before they can buy books. Budgets for school and public libraries have to increase, at least to the point where they were before the crisis. From a quality standpoint, there will be innovations, some of which will be short-lived; others will stand the test of time.
In the meantime, poets will keep writing, holding to their standards of craft, as well as nourishment for children. Organizations such as PACYA serve to keep the issues of need and availability before the public and are crucial to the recovery and maintenance of a society where poetry is woven into the lives of children and contributes to their happiness and development as human beings.
REVIEW OF THE GREAT MIGRATION BY JOYCE RAY
Eloise Greenfield, The Great Migration: Journey to the North, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. 32 pp. Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2011.
Eloise Greenfield, winner of the 11th NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and award-winning artist and writer Jan Spivey Gilchrist have collaborated on a book of poems inspired by a little-talked-about period of American history. Train travel is almost foreign to today’s children. Yet a train ticket led to a better life in the North for hundreds of thousands of African-American children in the early part of the 20th century. The Great Migration: Journey to the North chronicles such a trip in nine poems. Collage artwork using archival material lends historical authenticity to the collection. An introduction tells Greenfield’s own story of her family’s migration.
Greenfield’s free verse lets us witness a family’s goodbyes—goodbyes to the land, to inequality, and to the Ku Klux Klan.
Goodbye, crazy signs, telling me
where I can go, what I can do.
I hear that train whistling
my name. Don’t worry, train,
The poems book us a seat on the overnight trip with all its uncertainties.
I hope they’re right.
I think they’re right.
I know they’re right.
Finally, we arrive in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, or another northern city where
…the people keep coming,
keep coming, keep on coming,
filling up the cities with
their hopes and their courage.
And their dreams.
The rhythm in each of Greenfield’s poems lets us hear the click clack of train wheels on the track. We feel the hope in the hearts of the travelers. Gilchrist’s haunting illustrations combine layers of artwork and archival photos. The results were achieved through labor-intensive methods without computer graphics. They draw us into the poems as if we are watching a documentary. One moving illustration plants grainy photos of African Americans in a field, like ghostly witnesses to the train’s passing.
The Great Migration, Journey to the North is a stirring account in verse of a period that opened up opportunities for America’s Black citizens and changed American history. The jacket flap says the audience is Ages 3-8. The subject matter is more suited for an older audience, such as Grades 2-5.
Joyce Ray earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published nonfiction for children and poetry for adults. In 2008 the Vermont Studio Center awarded her an artist’s grant in poetry. Memberships include NH Writers’ Project, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults. Joyce conducts poetry workshops in New Hampshire and muses about poetry and writing at http://joyceray.blogspot.com.