Although Hamilton has written other biographies for young people, notably Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man (1974), it is primarily for her juvenile and young adult fiction that she is known. She creates vivid, unusual characters and situations, and she has won many awards for her writing. Her single most renowned work is M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974), published two years after W. E. B. Du Bois. For this book Hamilton was awarded the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award; she was the first African-American writer to win the Newbery Medal. Other highly regarded Hamilton works include The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), which also received a number of awards.
Hamilton is the granddaughter of a runaway slave, and she has been interested in depicting various aspects of the African-American experience in her fiction and non-fiction alike. W. E. B. Du Bois is dedicated to her father, Kenneth Hamilton. She tells the reader that she always wanted to study and write about Du Bois because he was her father’s hero; her father had held Du Bois up as an example when she was a child. It is, she writes, “no wonder that the writing of this biography seemed so natural, like the completion of a familiar idea.” In reading the book, one can feel the admiration she has for Du Bois.