Bette Greene (1934–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
First name pronounced BET-tee; born 1934, in Memphis, TN; Education: Attended Alliance Française (Paris, France), 1954, Columbia University, 1955, and Harvard University, 1972.
Agent—Susan Schulman, 454 West 44th St., New York, NY 10036.
Writer. Hebrew Watchman, Memphis, TN, reporter, 1950; Memphis Commercial Appeal, reporter, 1950–52; United Press International, Memphis, reporter, 1953–54; American Red Cross, public information officer, 1958–59; Boston State Psychiatric Hospital, Boston, MA, information officer, 1959–61.
Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers, Notable Book citation, American Library Association (ALA), and Notable Book citation, New York Times, all 1973, National Book Award finalist, Association of American Publishers, 1974, and Massachusetts Children's Book Award, Salem College, 1980, all for Summer of My German Soldier; ALA Notable Book designation, and Notable Book designation, New York Times, both 1974, and Newbery Honor Book, ALA, 1975, all for Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe; Parents' Choice Award, Parents' Choice Foundation, 1983, for Them That Glitter and Them That Don't.
FICTION; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Summer of My German Soldier, Dial (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, 2003.
Morning Is a Long Time Coming (sequel to Summer of My German Soldier), Dial (New York, NY), 1978.
Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.
FICTION; FOR MIDDLE GRADES
Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, illustrated by Charles Lilly, Dial (New York, NY), 1974.
Get on out of Here, Philip Hall, Dial (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 1999.
I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of articles to periodicals. Short fiction has been included in anthologies. Creator of Bette Greene Teaches Writing (interactive instructional videos), Christy Johnson Productions, 1999.
Author's papers are housed in a permanent collection at the Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota.
Summer of My German Soldier was adapted as a television movie starring Kristy McNichol, Bruce Davison, and Esther Rolle and broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC-TV), 1978; the film won an Emmy Award and was released as a filmstrip by Miller-Brody Productions in 1979. Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe was adapted into a filmstrip by Miller-Brody Productions in 1979. Both books have also been released on audiocassette. The Drowning of Stephan Jones was optioned as a film by Telling Pictures.
Although she has published only a small number of books since beginning her literary career, Bette Greene is highly respected in the field of young-adult literature, and has been praised for her realistic stories for middle graders. Her works for older readers, such as Summer of My German Soldier and Morning Is a Long Time Coming, address serious themes such as prejudice and religious hypocrisy while describing the moral and personal awakenings of her young female protagonists. Writing in the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, Joan F. Kaywell and Heidi M. Quintana commented that Greene "has left an indelible mark on twentieth-century young adult literature…. Hers is a strong voice that comes from the heart and dares to question
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what many don't want to think about." Greene is also acknowledged for her understanding of children and young people, for the success of her characterizations and dialogue, for her honesty and insight, and for her economical, polished prose.
Greene was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but was raised in the small town of Parkin, Arkansas, where her parents ran the general store. As a Jewish girl in a town of Christian fundamentalists, she experienced discrimination and learned what it was like to be an outsider. Since her parents spent a lot of time in their store, Greene was raised mainly by her family's African-American housekeeper, Ruth, who served as the model for the character of the same name in Summer of My German Soldier.
Although Greene thought about becoming a writer as a child, as she wrote in Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, "I didn't think it was realistic. The three reasons why not, more-or-less-in-this-order, were: 1) in a world where everything was going on, I was living in a dusty little place where almost nothing was going on; 2) I was a bad student; and 3) an even worse speller." Fortunately, she was inspired by a good teacher and at age nine determined to become a writer when her first story was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Just before Greene entered high school, her family returned to Memphis. Although she began writing for newspapers during her high school years and even won first prize in a local essay contest, she received poor grades in English because of her difficulties with spelling and punctuation. After graduation, she spent a year studying in Paris, France, an experiences that would later serve as the background for Morning Is a Long Time Coming. After a year abroad, she returned to Memphis and became a reporter for United Press International.
After taking classes at several colleges, Greene enrolled at Columbia University in New York City, where she focused on writing and astronomy. After graduation she worked as a part-time journalist and a public information officer before marrying physician Donald Sumner Greene and moving with him to Boston; the couple have two grown children. It was after the birth of daughter Carla that Greene began to write Summer of My German Soldier. The novel took five years to complete; after two more years spent searching for a publisher and eighteen rejections, the book was published by Dial Press in 1973.
Considered controversial when it was first published, Summer of My German Soldier takes place shortly after the end of World War II. In the story Patty Bergen, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl, befriends an escaped German prisoner of war who is hiding in her small Arkansas town. In her essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), Greene explained that the novel is based on an incident in her own life that "haunted me for many years before I was actually able to get it on paper." The novel chronicles the tender friendship between lonely, unhappy Patty, who has been rejected by her physically abusive father and immature mother, and the polite, cultured Anton Reiker, a young German incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp near Patty's home. Patty and Anton first meet in the store owned by Patty's father. Later, after Patty sees Anton fail in his attempt to escape from the camp, she hides him in abandoned rooms above the family garage until he can make another attempt. Patty is aided in her efforts by the Bergen's family housekeeper, Ruth, who loves the girl and tries to build her self-esteem. The friendship between Patty and Anton grows deeper until Anton is forced to flee from his hiding place, and he is eventually killed in a confrontation with police. Patty is treated as a criminal by the townspeople; she and her family are labeled "Jew-Nazis" and forced to give up their home and business. Despite her punishment, Patty ultimately learns to view herself as Anton saw her, as "a person of value."
Writing in Horn Book, Mary M. Burns called Summer of My German Soldier a "moving first novel, unforgettable because of the genuine emotion it evokes." New York Times Book Review critic Peter Sourian dubbed it "an exceptionally fine novel" and concluded that the "reason for the book's freshness … is its fineness, in the literal sense."
Despite substantial critical praise, the instances of prejudice and domestic violence in Greene's debut novel, as well as the tragedies of its plot, caused some observers to view it as unsuitable for young adults. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, for example, Audrey Laski noted that the book would probably "disturb a reader as young as its twelve-year-old heroine, because of the domestic violence … it records." Some critics complained that the characters veer close to being types, while others considered the book anti-Semitic because they felt that Greene portrays the German sympathetically while depicting Patty's father—the main Jewish character in the book—as a villain. Greene has been especially distressed by suggestions that the book is anti-Semitic, once telling Something about the Author: "I'm Jewish, proudly Jewish, but that doesn't mean that I'm incapable of writing about a flawed human being who happened to be Jewish." Despite some criticism, most reviewers assessed the novel favorably, and have since come to consider it an outstanding title for young people. In an interview with Jim Roginski in Behind the Covers, Greene said that the book "is now used in a lot of Jewish schools and used as part of Holocaust literature…. And since it's considered important Holocaust literature, I take it as a vindication."
In Morning Is a Long Time Coming, a sequel to Summer of My German Soldier, Patty angers her parents by using her college tuition money to travel to Europe. In Paris she has her first love affair, but is torn between staying with Roger, a young photographer who spent his youth in Atlanta, and going to Germany to look for the family of Anton Reiker. Although Roger proposes, Patty, who wants "Anton's mother to be my mother, too," goes to Germany and finds that Frau Reiker is already dead. Patty now realizes that she already has a loving mother figure in Ruth, her former housekeeper, and she finally lays her memories of Anton to rest.
Zena Sutherland, reviewing the novel for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that while Morning Is a Long Time Coming lacks the "dramatic impact of Summer of My German Soldier … it has the same authenticity." New York Times Book Review critic Peter Sourian claimed that what makes the novel transcend the "standard romantic intrigue is how the ethnic and cultural identities of such different people are integrated with their individualities and yet kept distinct, and how these people relate to one another and then grow from their common experience." While a Publishers Weekly critic claimed that the "overall impression is of a whining, self-centered teenager—quite different from the heroic and sensitive 12-year-old Patty," Kevin Wilson of Best Sellers concluded that Greene's "story could have become over-burdened with the bitterness and adolescent preoccupations of a very unhappy young woman. It does not."
Greene's next novel for young adults, Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, was published in 1983. As with her books about Patty Bergen, she sets her novel in a small Arkansas town, but moves her setting ahead to the present. Them That Glitter and Them That Don't features eighteen-year-old Carol Ann Delancy, a young woman whose father, an Irishman, is the town drunk, and whose mother, a Gypsy, is a fortune-teller and con artist. The Delancy family lives in a rundown shack, and Carol Ann dresses in rags; however, the girl is a gifted singer who knows that someday she will become a great country & western music star in Nashville. Although her dreams are ridiculed by teachers and class-mates, when a popular, scheduled singer can't open assembly because of illness, Carol Ann is hurriedly chosen to fill in. Meanwhile, the teen also comes to the reluctant conclusion that she has been abandoned by her family, and that the only way she can survive is to break away. Leaving her trailerpark home for Nashville, she is determined to realize her dream to improve the lives of her younger brother and sister.
Writing in School Library Journal, Susan F. Marcus claimed that while "Mama is a memorable and earthy villain…. it is Carol Ann who … will keep her readers turning the page (pulling for her) as she honestly faces, and overcomes, her painful situation." Mary M. Burns noted in Horn Book that Greene's protagonist "is a memorable character" and that the story is "persuasively real"; the critic concluded that "while Carol Ann as narrator is undoubtedly the central character, the personality of her mother … is a brilliant creation." Writing in Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin commented that while Greene's plot "takes some outlandish turns and relies too heavily on unfortunate stereotypes," Carol Ann "comes across as an individual, and this first-person telling … will strike a familiar chord among teenagers."
Based on an actual event, The Drowning of Stephan Jones describes a young gay man who died after being thrown off a bridge by three teenagers. The novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Carla Wayland, who lives in the small town of Rachetville, Arkansas. Carla is concerned when Andy, her all-American boyfriend who carries "his very own leather-bound Bible," is inspired by by the homophobic preaching of televangelists and of the leaders of his fundamentalist church to harass two homosexuals who have recently opened an antique store in a nearby town. Carla overlooks Andy's vicious gay-baiting until he and some of his friends confront Stephan Jones on a bridge, beat and strip him, and throw him into the water, where he drowns. At the trial, Carla finds the strength to speak the truth as chief witness; however, the town has rallied around the boys, who all receive probation. At the end of the novel, Stephan's partner Frank initiates his own surprising revenge on the murderers.
In researching The Drowning of Stephan Jones Greene conducted over four hundred interviews with both the victims and the perpetrators of gay-bashing; after the book's publication, she received at least one death threat. She once told SATA, "The three young men who [committed the murder in the case on which the novel is based] came from religious homes, particularly the one who was the leader. So I really tried to find out how it could be that people who are followers of the Prince of Peace could so such evil things, like murder people. Young men commit the crime. Young men do the time, but who eggs them on with constant harangues from the pulpit?" The author concluded, "I didn't do my book to prove something. I was just fascinated that a man could be drowned only because he's gay. I didn't quite understand it then, and I don't quite understand it now."
The first YA novel to address the issue of homophobic violence, The Drowning of Stephan Jones was praised by many reviewers for its timeliness. Although some critics called the book polemical—for example, Roger Sutton wrote in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that while "The topic of intolerance is timely, [and] the intentions are good,… this novel is by turn melodramatic and message-laden"—others appreciated its power and daring.
Greene's "Philip Hall" series of books, geared for middle graders, are lighter and more humorous than her novels for older readers. The Newbury Honor book Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe introduces Beth Lambert, an eleven-year-old African American who lives in rural Pocahontas, Arkansas. Beth and Philip Hall, a boy from the next farm, vie with each other for
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top place in their class, and the story outlines their rivalries and reconciliation. In the sequel, Get on out of Here, Philip Hall, Beth is devastated when the leadership prize of the town church goes to Philip instead of to her; to recover her status, she stages a parade that includes a race between Philip's club and her own. Although the parade is successful, Beth loses the race for her team. Still, Beth realizes that she is a natural leader and admits that she really likes Philip Hall. Published several decades after the other books in the series, I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall! finds Beth's all-out efforts to win Philip's attentions backfiring when "Tyrone the Cyclone," a fictitious he-man boyfriend she has created and bragged about in the hopes of making Philip jealous, is slated for an arm-wrestling match by the town mayor.
In her review of Philip Hall Likes Me for the New York Times Book Review, Betsy Byars praised the "finely done, subtle growth" of the protagonist and concluded: "There is a nice sort of timelessness about the book too, perhaps because the author has caught something un-changing in young people, and I think the book will retain its warm appeal for a long while." A critic in Booklist claimed that Greene captures "the warm atmosphere of rural Arkansas and the spunky personality of a black sixth-grade girl," while a reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded, "It's an unqualified delight to spend one's time with the Lambert family … and their friends." In her review of Get on out of Here, Philip Hall for the New York Times Book Review, Cynthia King commented, "This wise and original novel makes us cry as we laugh, even at its beautifully resolved happy ending," while School Librarian contributor Terry Downie called Get on out of Here, Philip Hall "a book to promote in all schools, a valuable addition to the small, but important body of books where black characters are in the centre of the stage and race is not an issue." A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the "Philip Hall" books for their ability to "draw even reluctant readers" with their amusing plots and fast action, while in Kliatt Michele Winship cited the series' appeal as the result of "Beth's self-consciously funny adventures and … Greene's playful use of language."
Regarding the overall theme of her writing, Greene told Carroll Stoner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I hope that I convey one thing to young people. Failure is not the worst thing. The worst thing is not to try." "Behind every work of art," the author once wrote in SAAS, "there is an artist passionate about his work. Neither indifference nor cool nonchalance has ever created a thing of beauty. If a book is not risky, then it's not worth the writing or the reading. And it's certainly not worth the value of a good tree." "I'd like to encourage writers to allow themselves to feel, Greene continued. "It matters not how brilliantly your mind glows or how gloriously you can manipulate words. If you cannot or will not open yourself to the joy and pain that you feel … you cannot be a writer of any significance. You must pry yourself open to become an artist, because ultimately a novel, if it's successful, has to be a story about what it means to be human."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 7, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 83-91.
Behind the Covers, Libraries Unlimited, 1975, pp. 94-102.
Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995, p. 284.
Drew, Bernard A., The One Hundred Most Popular Young Adult Authors, Libraries Unlimited, 1996.
Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Sally Holmes Holtze, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1983, pp. 136-137.
Helbig, Alethea K., and Agnes Regan Perkins, Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Now upon a Time: A Contemporary View of Children's Literature, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1977, pp. 310-311.
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St. James Guide to Children's Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 16, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993, pp. 157-172.
Best Sellers, December, 1978, Kevin Wilson, review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, p. 291.
Booklist, March 15, 1975, review of Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, p. 760; March 1, 1983, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, p. 870; May 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 1559.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1974, pp. 94-95; April, 1978, Zena Sutherland, review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, p. 127; October, 1981, pp. 29-30; May, 1983, p. 167; December, 1991, Roger Sutton, review of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, pp. 90-91.
Growing Point, January, 1975, Margery Fisher, review of Summer of My German Soldier, pp. 2557-2560.
Horn Book, February, 1974, Mary M. Burns, review of Summer of My German Soldier, p. 56; August, 1978, p. 402; October 1981, pp. 534-533; August, 1983, Mary M. Burns, review of Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, p. 453; September, 1993, Patty Campbell, "The Sand in the Oyster," pp. 568-570; March-April, 2004, Betty Carter, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 183.
Junior Bookshelf, February, 1975, p. 62; February, 1977, p. 34; February, 1979, pp. 66-67; February, 1983, p. 50.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1978, review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, p. 183; November 15, 1991, p. 1470; January 15, 2004, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 82.
Kliatt, March, 2004, Michele Winship, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973, Peter Sourian, review of Summer of My German Soldier, p. 29; December 8, 1974, Betsy Betsy, review of Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, p. 8; April 30, 1978, Peter Sourian, review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, p. 30; February 21, 1982, Cynthia King, review of Get on out of Here, Philip Hall, p. 35.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1973, Carroll Stoner, "Love Story: A Jewish Girl and a Captured Nazi," pp. 1G, 6G.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1974, review of Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, p. 58; January 16, 1978, review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, p. 99; November 8, 1991, review of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, pp. 65-66; January 19, 2004, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 77.
School Librarian, March, 1983, Terry Downie, review of Get on out of Here, Philip Hall, p. 57.
School Library Journal, April, 1983, Susan F. Marcus, review of Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, pp. 122-123; March, 2004, Barbara Auerbach, review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall!, p. 212.
Times Educational Supplement, December 9, 1977, Audrey Laski, "Partridge in a Pear Tree," p. 21.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1991, p. 312.
Washington Post Book World, May 10, 1981, Sue Ellen Bridgers, "Stories of Rural Childhood," pp. 15-16.
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