Virginia Hamilton’s books, which combined African-American and Native American lore with contemporary stories and characters, are memorable not only for their inventiveness and rich characterizations, but also for their ability to evoke a wide variety of times, places, and historical figures.
A writer of prodigious gifts, Virginia Hamilton forged a new kind of juvenile fiction by twining African-American and Native American history and folklore with contemporary stories and plotlines.
With Hamilton's first novel, Zeely, the story of a young farm girl who fantasizes that a woman she knows is a Watusi queen, she set the bar high. The book won a American Library Association Notable Children's Book citation. Hamilton rose to her own challenge, and every new book she published enriched American literature to such a degree that in 1995 she was awarded the ALA's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement.
Born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and raised in an extended family of farmers and storytellers (her own father was a musician), Hamilton's work was inspired by her childhood experiences, family mythology, and Ohio River Valley homeland. In an article about the importance of libraries in children's lives, she credits her mother and the "story lady" at her childhood public library with opening her mind to the world of books.
Although she spent time in New York City working as a bookkeeper after college, and traveled widely in Africa and Europe, Hamilton spent most of her life in Yellow Springs, anchored by the language, geography, and culture of southern Ohio. In The House of Dies Drear, she arranged her story around the secrets of the Underground Railroad. In M. C. Higgins, the Great, winner of both a John Newbery Medal and a National Book Award, she chronicled the struggles of a family whose land, and life spirit, is threatened by strip mining. Publishers Weekly called the novel "one of those rare books which draws the reader in with the first paragraph and keeps him or her turning the page until the end."
In her series of folk-tale collections, including The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, Hamilton salvaged and burnished folk tales from cultures across the world for her stories; stories that suffused her fiction with its extraordinary blend of worldly and otherworldly events, enchantment, and modern reality. Virginia Hamilton died on February 19, 2002.
Good To Know
Hamilton's first research trip to a library was to find out more about her family's exotic chickens, which her mother called "rainbow layers," because of the many tints of the eggs they laid.
In 1995, Hamilton became the first children's writer to win a John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur "genius" grant.