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Virginia Hamilton established herself as one of the most prolific and influential writers for children and young adults. She was a productive writer, having produced a new book almost every year since 1967. Hamilton experiments with techniques and theme, primarily depicting contemporary African American life and its historical and cultural heritage.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Gift of Storytellers
Virginia Hamilton was born on March 12, 1936, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, home of Antioch College. Her grandfather, Levi Perry, escaped from slavery and made his way north to Yellow Springs where he settled on land that remains in the Perry family today. She is the youngest of the five children of musician Kenneth James Hamilton and Etta Belle (Perry) Hamilton. Her parents, avid readers and great storytellers, inspired Hamilton to write.
Hamilton began writing stories at an early age. She was a good student, finishing at the top of her high school class. The aspiring writer attended Antioch College on a full scholarship, where she was one of very few African American students. She studied creative writing, earning a degree in 1955, and later attended Ohio State University, still writing short stories all the while. She moved to New York to attend the New School for Social Research, hoping to improve her craft, and supported herself as a part-time cost accountant.
New York and Africa
While in New York City, Hamilton became more satisfied with her writing. One of her favorite models at this time was Carson McCullers. Hamilton felt she learned from McCullers’s writing ”what a good sentence was.” During this period Hamilton also met Arnold Adoff, a poet, whom she married in 1960. She and her husband traveled to Spain and to Africa. Going to Africa had been an enduring dream of Hamilton’s; it made ”a tremendous impression” on her, she said, even though her stay was brief.
A Successful First Book
In 1967, Hamilton published her first book, Zeely, a story based on a short story she wrote in Ohio. The book is about a young girl called Geeder who spends a summer on her uncle’s farm. She develops a childish infatuation for Zeely Taber, a six and one-half foot tall young black woman. Geeder imagines the young woman is a Watusi queen. Through her imagination and fascination with Zeely, Geeder discovers a lot about herself. Zeely was chosen as an American Library Association Notable Book for 1967 and was also awarded the Nancy Block Memorial Award for promoting racial understanding. It was one of the few children’s books about African Americans and one that provided a positive view.
Family Ties and the Underground
After the success of Zeely, Hamilton and her family returned to Yellow Springs where she began research on her next book, The House of Dies Drear (1968). Hamilton researched the Underground Railroad and gathered stories from relatives who used the Railroad in order to secure their freedom. This book received the Ohioan Book Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery.
Writing Biographies and More Awards
Between 1968 and 1974 Hamilton wrote seven more books, among them a biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. This book was dedicated to her father, who had a longtime admiration for the black intellectual and his battles against discrimination and second-rate citizenship. Like all of her books, the Du Bois biography is a record of black survival against unfair odds. Implicit in the portrayal of this black man of dignity is the dignity of the black race.
A second nonfiction work was published in 1974, her biography Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man. The year 1974 also saw the publication of M. C. Higgins the Great, her sixth novel and winner of the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe Award.
Fantasy and the Environment
Between 1978 and 1981, Hamilton produced the Justice trilogy: Justice and Her Brothers (1978), Dustland (1980), and The Gathering (1981). These books deal with an eleven-year-old girl, Justice, and her thirteen-year-old identical twin brothers who live in a town very much like Yellow Springs, where Hamilton grew up. While the characters are contemporary and realistically drawn, the stories are futuristic and contain elements of extrasensory power. In this series, Hamilton was able to reveal her interest in ecology and genetics.
A True Legacy
Over the years, Hamilton wrote over thirty-five books, from folktales to fantasies, realistic novels to biographies; books read by children and adults. Her work has won extensive critical praise as well as numerous awards. In 2002, Virginia Hamilton passed away due to breast cancer.
Works in Literary Context
Multicultural Children’s Books
The goal of multicultural literature is to celebrate all cultures in American society. Many multicultural writers of children’s books tend to focus on folktales and historical novels. Thanks to Virginia Hamilton, there exists a more assorted collection of literature available to children about African American ethnicity. Writing primarily for children, she seems largely concerned with delineating black characters that foster feelings of self-worth and understanding in her young readers. The characters in her books take pride in themselves, regardless of what outsiders think. While African American characters are featured in all of her books, she is primarily a writer focused on characterization, setting, and plot.
Stories of Survival
Survival is an important ingredient in Hamilton’s books. Her husband even refers to her books as ”survival primers.” Being a black woman in a white-male-dominated society taught Hamilton a great deal about survival, an essential element in the story of the black experience in America. She recounts the survival story of slaves risking their lives for freedom in The House of Dies Drear. In The Gathering, survival is related to changes in the environment.
Family unity and her portrayal of supportive family relations is a strong theme in Hamilton’s work. Aunts, uncles, and cousins are portrayed realistically, with their various jealousies and rivalries surfacing, as well as love. Some families are traditional while others are more contemporary—children living with a single parent, interracial families, and families based on bonds rather than blood. Though the members are distinctive, there is always love.
Language and Dialect
Hamilton’s books are praised for her use of language, natural dialogue, and dialect. She varies the speech patterns, using the language suited for a particular era or location. In The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) Hamilton uses creative dialect to retell black folktales; in Junius Over Far (1985) she uses a Caribbean dialect. She captures the musical sound of language, which makes her books appealing to children. Hamilton was a skillful experimenter with language who was not afraid to take chances by challenging her readers. She used a rich, imaginative, and unique prose style that varied in each of her later books, suiting the language to subject.
Works in Critical Context
Hamilton’s folktales, contemporary fables, biographies, realistic novels, and fantasy stories have all been well received, evidenced by her winning every major award in her field. As Ethel L. Heins wrote in Horn Book: ”Few writers of fiction for young people are as daring, inventive, and challenging to read—or to review—as Virginia Hamilton. Frankly making demands on her readers, she nevertheless expresses herself in a style essentially simple and concise.” And Betsy Hearne in Bookbird claims
Virginia Hamilton has heightened the standards of children’s literature as few others have. She does not address children or the state of children so much as she explores with them, sometimes ahead of them, the full possibilities of boundless imagination.
Zeely Hamilton’s first book is about a young girl (Geeder) who views Zeely, a neighbor, as a queen, though in truth, Zeely tends to hogs. Some reviewers said that Geeder’s character was not fully realized and that the encounter scene between Zeely and Geeder was anticlimactic. But most praised Hamilton’s use of language, her ability to create a mood piece that has a special appeal to young girls. In Written for Children, John Rowe Townsend states Zeely is ”a book without bitterness or paranoia… it is deeply concerned with black dignity: the splendor of Zeely in contrast with her humble occupation, the association of night traveling with escape from slavery.”
The House of Dies Drear
In 1968 Hamilton’s second book, The House of Dies Drear, was published. It is the story of a thirteen-year-old black boy who moves from his home in North Carolina to Ohio and into the house of Dies Drear, an abolitionist operating an Underground Railroad station in his house. The house has a past of ghosts and murders, and the sliding panels and secret tunnels all help to create an atmosphere of mystery. Reviewers praised her writing skills, her use of language handled with poetic precision, sentences of high polish, and imaginative characters. Zena Sutherland in Saturday Review calls it memorable literature that gives dignity to black heritage.” Dorothy Sterling in The New York Times Book Review writes, The House ofDies Drear is written with poetic precision. Miss Hamilton polishes her sentences with care, develops her characters with imagination and love.”
- Apseloff, Marilyn. Virginia Hamilton/Ohio Explorer in the World of Imagination. Columbus, Ohio: The State Library of Ohio, 1979.
- MacCann, Donnarae and Gloria Woodard, eds. The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972.
- Mikkelsen, Nina. Virginia Hamilton. New York: Twayne, 1994.
- Wheller, Jill C. Virginia Hamilton. Minneapolis, Minn: ABDO & Daughters, 1997.
- Heins, Paul. ”Virginia Hamilton.” Horn Book 51 (August 1975): 344-348.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. ”Virginia Hamilton.” Horn Book 48 (December 1972): 563-569.
- –. ”Virginia Hamilton.” More Books by More People 51 (1974): 199-207.
- Langton, Jane. ”Virginia Hamilton, the Great.” Horn Book 50 (December 1974): 671-673.
- Virginia Hamilton Online. Retrieved October 1, 2008, from http://www.virginiahamilton.com/home.htm. Last updated in 2001.
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