I was recently reading books by the wonderful and prolific writer Eloise Greenfield (at least 45 children’s books published). Her book Night on Neighborhood Street (illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrest) changed the way I understood what children’s books can be. They don’t all have to have a “story”–problem encountered, attempts to solve, solution. This book was an accounting of evening in several homes on Neighborhood Street. We see kids dreaming, kids being tucked in, kids afraid, Tonya’s mother playing her trumpet for Tonya’s friends. I loved this book and it changed the way I write.
But her book that has most recently changed me is a picture book biography of Paul Robeson, the 20th century African American singer who was famous for his powerful bass voice. He was invited to sing all over the world. He was also an actor on stage in England and the U.S. as well as in movies. He was the son of an escaped slave and never forgot the injustices suffered by people of color in America. Eloise Greenfield writes: “After he sang, he talked. He talked about black freedom, good jobs for everyone, and peace. Audiences listened.”
He thought people of color were treated better in the U.S.S.R. than in the U.S. and “went to peace meetings held by communists.” He was blacklisted, could not find singing engagements. His football record could not be found in the records at Rutgers, where he was named All-American. He was restricted from traveling outside the United States. “Several times he sang at the line between the United States and Canada. He stood on a stage in the United States, on one side of the line. His audience sat in a park in Canada, on the other side of the line.” After 8 years of going to court, he was finally allowed to travel outside the United States.
After reading this book, I listened to Paul Robeson sing:
I watched a documentary, “Scandalize My Name Stories from the Blacklist.” And I plan to read his book Here I Stand. Greenfield has added an important person to my list of great Americans.
Through this one picture book I was introduced to a man, a giant of our twentieth century, a man whose example of courage in standing up to anti-Communist hysteria inspires me decades later. Greenfield’s biography was published in 1975 and is still in print. Seems like a seed waiting to grow in the mind of a reader. That’s what books do, whether they are brand new or 45 years old.