When Virginia Hamilton was growing up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she could spend her day walking in one direction and quite possibly never leave her family's land. Surrounded by the twelve acres of her father's farm -- plus that of her relatives -- Hamilton grew up loving the rural land. "Being an Ohioan means that I have a long kinship with so many people here," she says, "with the landscape and the Ohio sky. For me, there is nothing quite like an Ohio sunset."
Being around her family also meant she was knee deep in inspiration. The youngest of five children, she describes her father as the "the sun around which my world revolved" and her mother as her universe. Her parents were talented storytellers, who recounted to their children how their grandfather Levi Perry had escaped slavery across the Ohio River. Hamilton read, listened, and wrote with equal intensity as a child, describing both the images inside her head and the ideas around her. "Being the youngest of five children," she said, "as a kid I spent a good amount of time listening to grown-up women talking."
In addition to her family, Hamilton credited many people around her for encouraging her efforts. She competed in public-speaking contests, sang for local occasions, played sports, and served as president of her class. As evidence of her persuasive skills, she wrote the class play and convinced "almost all of the football and basketball fellows to participate -- no mean feat at the time!"
Hamilton received a full scholarship to nearby Antioch College and later attended The Ohio State University in Columbus. On the encouragement of one of her teachers, she moved to New York and attended the New School for Social Research. In New York she met her future husband, Arnold Adoff, and they married in 1960. The couple stayed in New York City, and Hamilton sometimes worked as a bookkeeper or singer while Adoff managed jazz musicians. No matter how many side jobs Hamilton had, she stayed true to her dream. "I started writing as a kid; it was always something I was going to do."
Zeely, her first book, grew from a short story Hamilton had written. Published in 1967, the book was a departure from the then-dominant themes of segregation and discrimination. Zeely focused on how a young girl discovers her own identity and an appreciation for her African-American heritage. It is now considered one of the classics of children's literature.
That same year, Hamilton and her family -- there were now two children -- moved back to Yellow Springs. Hamilton still had big plans. She began historical research for her second book; The House of Dies Drear was published within a year and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery. For this story, Hamilton revisited her family legends, telling about a former Underground Railroad house and the secrets within it. She continued writing stories with themes of liberation, creating a wealth of contemporary fiction for minority children.
Hamilton edited several collections of stories as well, finding slave narratives both popular and forgotten. One of her favorite books was The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, a compilation of short stories in which Hamilton relates the folklore of first and second generation African Americans. For People Could Fly, Hamilton received many accolades and honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award. At that ceremony, she explained the importance of the stories, saying that these folktales communicated comfort, strength, and a sense of togetherness to the slaves and their families. "(The folktales) allow us to share in the known, the remembered, and the imagined together as Americans sharing the same history…."
However, her biggest contributions were not created through a simple recording of history. "Liberation literature not only frees the subject of record and evidence but the witness as well, who is also the reader, who then becomes part of the struggle.... We become emotionally involved in his problem; we suffer; and we triumph, as the victim triumphs, in the solution of liberation."
Throughout her career, Hamilton wrote and edited over thirty books and received many awards in addition to those already mentioned, including the National Book Award, the John Newbery Medal, and Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Though she was extremely influential in the expansion of African-American young adult literature, she insisted there was no "message" in her books, instead emphasizing a talent she had since childhood. "That's not how you write a book," she said. "You're not trying to accomplish anything, but tell a good story, and my books are full of good stories."
Photos courtesy of Simon & Schuster.