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A Lasting Mark: The Legacy of Virginia Hamilton

By Adrienne Rivera. Mar 12, 2019. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Children's Books, Awarded Books, Newbery Award

Esteemed children's book author Virginia Hamilton was born the youngest of five children in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1934 during the great depression. Her maternal grandfather came to the state on the Underground Railroad, and the family always prized the freedom to pursue education, creativity, and freedom. The encouragement she received in her home environment helped Virginia Hamilton graduate at the top of her class and receive a full scholarship to Antioch College. Hamilton later transferred to Ohio State University where she studied literature and creative writing, actively pursuing the field in which she would eventually succeed. During her lifetime, she won every major award for young people's literature for which she was eligible, and she has left a lasting mark as one of the most awarded writers of American children's literature. 

the house of dies drearAfter graduating from college, Hamilton moved to New York City. There, she hoped to become a successfully published author. She took writing classes at the New School under Hiram Haydn, one of the founders of the famous Atheneum Press, now part of Simon & Schuester. To pay for classes, Hamilton worked a variety of jobs, including working as a night club singer, a receptionist at a museum, and an accountant. It wasn't until she met and married poet Arnold Adoff, that she was able to stop working and devote herself full time to her dream of writing fiction for children.

The couple built a home on her family's land in Yellow Springs, and with the history of her family in mind, she began her work writing what she thought of as “liberation fiction”stories about the history and legacy of African Americans. She published her first book, Zeely, in 1967 at the age of thirty-one. Zeely tells the story of two siblings, Geeder and Toeboy, and the friendship they form on their uncle's farm with his tenant Zeely, who they mistake for an African queen. Zeely was named an ALA Notable Book and won the Nancy Bloch Award.

Her second book was published the very next year. The House of Dies Drear was quite a departure from Zeely. The House of Dies Drear is a children's mystery novel set in a supposedly haunted house that was once part of the Underground Railroad. The book was met with massive success and won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. She revisited the beloved setting of this book twenty years later with its sequel, The Mystery of Drear House.

Hamilton's next major award came in 1971 with the publication of the now classic The Planet of Junior Brown illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. The book was named a Newbery Honor Book and a Horn Book fanfare book. It was nominated for a Mark Twain Award, and it took home the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, awarded to books considered of the same quality and resonance as Carroll's own famous Alice series. The book was positively received by critics and readers alike, and in 1997, it was adapted into a film starring Margot Kidder, Sarah Polley, Rainbow Sun Franks, and Lynn Whitfield. For her performance in the film, Whitfield won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Performance in a Youth/Children's Series or Special.

In 1974, Hamilton won the Newbery Award for M.C. Higgins the Great. In addition to this impressive award, she also won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. The only other book to have ever achieved this set of honors is Holes by Louis Sachar. M.C. Higgins the Great has been widely translated and is considered to be an important depiction of the disappearing hill people of the Appalachian Mountains. It was adapted into a film in 1987.

Hamilton's next massively successful book came in 1982. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award, the American Book Award, and earned Hamilton her second Boston Globe-Horn Award. It was also named a Newbery Honor book.

Virginia_HamiltonBy 1984, it was clear that Hamilton was a force in the world of children's literature, not only creating books that resonated with children on an emotional level, but books that furthered her own ideas of the importance of her self-coined liberation literature. This dedication to creating diverse, multicultural books that depicted the African American experience was formally recognized with the establishment of the Virginia Hamilton Lecture on Children's Literature at Kent State. It has since morphed into the Virginia Hamilton Conference, and it is one of the longest-running conferences dedicated to multicultural works of children's and young adult fiction.

In 1992, Hamilton received one of children's literature's highest honors: The Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing. At the time, she was only the fourth American to ever be so honored. In 1995, she became the first ever children's book author to be granted the MacArthur Fellowship. That same year, she was given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her contributions to children's literature.

Hamilton continued to write until she succumbed to breast cancer in 2002. She published over forty books for children in varying genres during her impressive career, including some which have been posthumously published: Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl and Wee Winnie Witch’s Skinny. Hamilton's legacy continues in the printings of her important works, now considered classics, and in the Virginia Hamilton Conference which provides opportunities for the scholarship and promotion of the multicultural works to which she dedicated her career.

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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