A much-honored writer of children’s literature, Virginia Esther Hamilton was awarded every major award for her stories. Beginning with the Nancy Block Memorial Award of New York for her first book, Zeely, she has received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery, the Newbery Medal (becoming the first African American writer to receive it), the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the National Book Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. In 1995, she received a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Hamilton was born and raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and her talent as a writer became evident at an early age. She went on to Antioch College, where she studied creative writing. She concentrated on short stories; one of her models was Carson McCullers. Upon leaving Antioch, she went to Ohio State University for a period but then moved to New York City with the intention of attending the New School for Social Research. In New York she met and married poet Arnold Adoff. Their honeymoon to North Africa was credited by Hamilton with having been an influence on her book Zeely.
Zeely was developed from one of her short stories after a book editor encouraged Hamilton to switch from short fiction to long fiction for children. It tells the unusual story of a young girl’s fascination with a neighbor woman, Zeely, who resembles a Watusi princess. Chosen as an American Library Association Notable Book for 1967, it was also awarded the Nancy Block Memorial Award because its handling of the black experience promoted racial understanding. Well received critically, the book launched Hamilton’s career as a writer of children’s fiction.
In 1974, M. C. Higgins the Great was published. A story of a young boy’s rite of passage into responsible young manhood, the book was called brilliant by many, a powerful “charting of growing up.” Some critics, however, decried her writing style, which they labeled “heavy” and occasionally impenetrable. In spite of such naysayers, the book was a success, winning many prestigious awards. It became the first book ever to win both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award.
A prolific writer who produced about one book a year, she also wrote nonfiction for children. Her biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson are commendable for their portrayals of the enormous strength of these two African American men as well as their flaws. Her goal was to show the men as heroes with whom young black readers could identify while making them real people.
Hamilton was applauded for, among other things, the unique approach she took to children’s stories: the telling of tales with African American heroes and heroines whose experiences and adventures are not so much peculiar to the black experience as they are revealingly universal. Her characters show how to survive the mundane, the odd, and the fantastic, which makes her books not only compelling reading but also subtle “survival primers” (as her husband described them). Hamilton herself said that she saw her books and the language she used in them as empowering her to express her own “dreams and wishes and those of other African Americans.” She liked writing for and about young people largely because her own childhood in Yellow Springs was “so delightful.” Her family was full of storytellers; she describes them as “an extremely eccentric family . . . independent . . . wise . . . and very talkative.” Living most of her professional life in the small town in which she grew up—and where family still had a strong effect on her—Hamilton seemed to find the inspiration and creative nourishment that helped her to write.
Hamilton and her husband lived in Yellow Springs on land that had been in the family since her fugitive slave ancestor settled there after fleeing the South. While producing an impressive number of books, Hamilton reared two children who became artists in their...
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