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Virginia Hamilton
1936–2002

Virginia Hamilton died on February 19, 2002, in Dayton, Ohio. The author of more than thirty-books, mostly novels but also nonfiction and picture books, she won every major children’s book award, including the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award (all for M. C. Higgins, the Great, with Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush and Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave picking up additional Boston Globe–Horn Book medals). She was given Hans Christian Andersen and Laura Ingalls Wilder awards for the body of her work and a MacArthur Fellowship for the quality of her mind.

Ms. Hamilton is remembered here with three articles from our archives:
    • “Virginia Hamilton, the Great,” by Jane Langton, first published in our December 1974 issue
    • a 1975 biographical profile, “Virginia Hamilton,” written by Paul Heins to accompany her Newbery acceptance speech
    • a 2000 contribution from Ms. Hamilton herself, “Future Classics,” her choices for books from the twentieth century that will survive into the twenty-second.

From the December 1974 Horn Book Magazine

Virginia Hamilton, the Great

By Jane Langton

hy does Virginia Hamilton perch M. C. Higgins on a swaying pole forty feet high? Why, why? Why is there a secret model of the solar system in The Planet of Junior Brown (Macmillan)? Are they images for the vastness of all-surrounding reality? Do they work? Do they help? Or are they merely puzzling and queer?

I can’t decide whether I think these two books would be better off without these oddities, or whether it is the strange things themselves that haunt me. If I were forced to make up my mind, I guess I would say that Junior Brown would be a better book without the Planet and that M. C. Higgins could have stood on his own lofty front porch on Sarah’s Mountain and looked out over his world without climbing a steel pole at all.

But who cares? If Virginia Hamilton wants a forty-foot pole, she can have it; and if she wants a giant butterfly or a colossal pumpkin, she can have them too. I don’t care what she throws in, because she is a writer of such mastery and power. But beware — she takes over. By some kind of mesmerism or demonic possession, she snatches away mind and soul and body and replaces them with those of a thirteen-year-old boy who lives on a Mountainside in some nameless hilly place near the Ohio River. You breathe his every breath, and think his every thought, and hear and see with his eyes and ears. From the first paragraph, when you are suspended in air overlooking the valley, you are conscious of inhabiting that strong, young body and of looking about in the moist, golden air over the thick, green growth of the hills.

Here you are, inside this boy. Can he read and write? It doesn’t matter. Poverty has purified his life of dross, reducing it to elemental things. MOTHERS: “Smiling, Mrs. Killburn swept the baby up and under her arm. She held the child around its middle, the way she might rest a sack of sugar on her hip.” FALLING IN LOVE: “In his excitement at having the girl come home with him, he was going too fast. He saw everything around him as if in a fog. Pure outlines of branches, pine boughs, grasses, filled his brain with haze.” DEATH: “Two years ago bulldozers had come to make a cut at the top of Sarah’s Mountain. They began uprooting trees and pushing subsoil in a huge pile to get at the coal. As the pile grew enormous, so had M. C.’s fear of it. He had nightmares in which the heap came tumbling down. Over and over again, it buried his family on the side of the mountain.” SUPERSTITIOUS DREAD: “You can be stalking. Hear a sound. You look to see but there’s nothing. Turn back, and he’s there on the path blocking you. Don’t try to pass him by.” THE LAND: “as they began to climb the foothills, Grey Mountain and Hall Mountain came into view like swollen, smoky giants. Black with trees, they looked rolling cushion soft and belly full.”

Why is M. C. Higgins called “the Great”? It is his joking name for himself, but in the end he seems to have earned it because he has won his mountain by building a wall against the threatening heap of “spoil.” Surely there is also something slightly superhuman about the way he looks out on the landscape from his pole. Like a prophet, he sees visitors moving far away among the trees and hears them calling and singing out, as though he were being granted remote visionary glimpses of the future. “The pole swung forward in a slow, sweeping arc. Beyond the hills, he caught glimpses of the Ohio River. . . . He raised his arm so that his hand seemed to slide over the perfect roll and curve of the hill range before him to the south. He fluffed the trees out there and smoothed out the sky. ‘Now,’ he said softly, ‘you’re looking good.’”

But M. C. is not so very different from the characters in Virginia Hamilton’s other books. A succession of solemn children — each one grasped by a mystic sense of significance and purpose — moves through space and time, passing among tall columnar presences of immense dignity (Zeely, Mr. Pluto, Mr. Pool, Banina, Jones), intent on strange random errands or journeys in which peculiar events are part of the circumscribing dailiness.

How does she do it? What ouija board does she write on? I find it baffling to describe the strength and rightness of her style. There is no weakening of the spell anywhere. Like a magician or prestidigitator, she leaves you levitated, sawed in half, and put back together — partially transformed. Like a sorcerer, she inhabits you with spirits. And they remain. The demon spell works for good. After reading M. C. Higgins, The Great (Macmillan), you do not altogether get yourself back. It is Virginia Hamilton’s most splendid book so far.

From the August 1975 Horn Book Magazine

Virginia Hamilton

By Paul Heins

irginia Hamilton recently told me, “There are three things I can remember always wanting: to go to New York, to go to Spain, and to be a writer. It feels nice to have done all three. I haven’t had to want anything for some time.” What is most remarkable about these statements is not the somewhat ingenuous remark that “It feels nice to have done all three,” but the fact that she hasn’t “had to want anything for some time.“ For her concluding comment is disarmingly simple and reflects her uniqueness as a writer and as a person. I think we can ignore the accomplishment of her desire to go to Spain. But her need to go to New York and her need to become a writer were in part prophetic, and in their fulfillment are to be found essential portions of the substance of her life. For she “grew up yearning for the unusual, seeking something unique in myself,” and in her maturity she has continued both to accept and to explore the meaning of her individual perceptions and experiences.

Her experiences have deep roots, for she lives in the Miami Valley in southern Ohio, the land of her immediate ancestors. Her maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, who had been born a slave in 1855, ran away from the Kentucky-Tennessee area with his mother and settled in Jamestown, Ohio. He later married into the Adams family living nine miles away in Yellow Springs, and Virginia grew up among Adamses and Perrys who had increased and multiplied and become farmers and landowners on the periphery of the village. She tells how, as a child, she had the run of neighboring farms which belonged to the Perrys and how her cousins, aunts, and uncles were always glad to see her. Moreover, she stresses the power of kinship: “The relationship of my relatives to past and present is something I learned as a child, and the learning is still going on. I know how people interact. I know what an exceptional spiritual experience is the extended family.”

Her father, Kenneth Hamilton, was born in Alton, Illinois; and although he was a graduate of the Iowa State Business College, he could not find a job to make use of his training. He wandered through North America and at one time ran gambling halls in mining towns in the Dakotas. From him Virginia learned about Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and many other noteworthy black personalities; and at an early age she became acquainted with her father’s books — especially with the works of Poe and Kafka. For she was encouraged to read, and when she began to write at the age of nine or ten, her literary activities were taken for granted.

By the time she finished high school and received a full scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, she had absorbed the traditional lore and the storytelling inclinations of the Perry clan, undergone the stimulating influence of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and become aware of her personal ambition to be a writer. She spent three years at Antioch, where she did well in her writing and literature courses.

But for the next fifteen years or so, she engaged in a flirtation with New York — intermittently paying visits to the city working, singing in obscure nightclubs, studying at the New School, and becoming acquainted with musicians, artists, and other writers. During this period, there was an interlude of two years at Ohio State University; then she capitulated and remained in New York. Her reason for ultimately leaving New York discloses the way in which she comes to grips with her experiences: “I loved the City until the moment I could no longer stand it, which happened one day between four and five in the afternoon. I think what happened was that I had always found it too stimulating. No time to think, only time to recoil or react. I felt no control over my life. I could not initiate or change anything. I had no effect.”

Before she left New York, Virginia had met and married Arnold Adoff, an attractive, intelligent, and witty teacher from the Bronx; in the course of searching for suitable materials for his classes in Harlem, he found himself launched on his career as a well-known anthologist of black poetry. With their children, Leigh and Jaime, Virginia and Arnold turned towards Ohio. Virginia was returning to the large family community from which she had sprung; and purchasing some land from her mother, she and Arnold built in Yellow Springs a contemporary house — which she calls her castle.

It is massive, made of redwood and glass, and has no windows, only sliding glass doors and clerestory lights. Virginia originally saw the design in Better Homes and Gardens and convinced Arnold that they should use it as a model. Much of the time they live and work at home, surrounded by their two-acre park; and Virginia feels both fortunate and happy to be located in the town of her origin. “People here are so supportive, and yet they know how to leave us alone. I know generations of people here. It is a comfort to see families regenerate themselves.”

Her knowledge of these generations has given her a sense of the continuity of her people. As a writer, she has absorbed the experiences of black history, both from her early personal background and from her later studies, and has transformed them into literature. Hovering in the background of Zeely (Macmillan) is Africa; hidden at the very center of The House of Dies Drear (Macmillan) lies the ambiguous relationship between the runaway slave and his white neighbors. The Planet of Junior Brown (Macmillan) lets us glimpse New York through the eyes of black characters; Sarah’s escape from bondage is the very pivot of M. C. Higgins, The Great (Macmillan).

Although there is plenty of realistic detail in her writing, Virginia Hamilton is not sure whether she is a realist; actually, she often feels that she is a symbolist. One might call her an inventor. She accepts her subject matter as she accepts herself or her experiences and then molds her material in accordance with a pattern suggested by her intuition, an intuition both aesthetic and human. She admires Faulkner: “Perhaps Dostoevsky is greater than Faulkner, but Faulkner is more deeply human. More appalled and obsessed by flawed, weak humanity. . . . I think Henry James and Thomas Mann are miraculous, but I love Faulkner”; and it is illuminating to discover that she prefers to read novelists who are storytellers: “I am impatient with self-centered, confessional writing.” What she herself reaches out for in her writing is always some exterior manifestation — historical or personal — that she has examined in the light of her feelings and her intelligence.

Virginia Hamilton’s calm and beautiful presence is aglow with knowledge and intuition. She knows that the lands between Yellow Springs and Xenia, Ohio, were the ancestral home of the Shawnee nation, and that her grandmother was said to be half Cherokee. She treasures her father’s mandolin —“of a rare scroll design, very old with inlaid ivory”; and she can intone a melody brought by her ancestors from Africa. She has even dared to characterize her own children: “They have great presence and often seem to listen with their eyes. My son is verbal — witty, while Leigh is mainly quiet and inward. They are loners, poor things, but are well-liked.” In commenting on her writing, Virginia Hamilton says, “I am learning to go backward and forward in time with the feeling of simultaneousness.” It is remarkable that this accomplishment applies to her personal life as well as to her art.

From the November/December 2000 Horn Book Magazine

Future Classics

By Virginia Hamilton

like authors’ writings to challenge my thinking. And I have several favorite books that do: Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Cormier’s Fade, and There Was Once a Slave . . . the Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass by Shirley Graham Du Bois. I wish I could be an artist like Tom Feelings, who created The Middle Passage, or Jacob Lawrence, who painted The Great Migration. I’m eternally grateful as well for Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Sam is revolutionary in its re-visioning of Little Black Sambo. Another, The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, stays with me always. Some will say it’s not a children’s book. Yet, what is a child book-reader after all? Children who read picture books at four, five, and six years old? The seven-, eight-, ten-, and twelve-year-olds who read a best-seller of seven-hundred-plus pages? One essay in The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Meaning of Progress,” is about Du Bois himself. He’s only just out of a teaching institute and searching for a school and black children to teach in rural Georgia. A parent could easily read this section, and more, to a child. Souls is a slim volume of essays, alive with history and full of wisdom and wizardry. The older child can, and ought, to read it.

All of the books I’ve mentioned are my personal bouquet, from which I’m at a loss to choose a single flower. In order to find the One book — impossible? — I need to return to a favorite title from my childhood, out of a gift storybook. The tale has now grown into multi-cultural ubiquity.

On a Christmas day when I was little, I sat in a far corner with my walking, talking new dolly, and whispered over the pictures of hearth and cinders and the lovely lady in her shimmering ball gown. She rose from grit to glory, rags to riches, with a little help from her friends. Our modest Ohio “cottage” had no fireplace, no silks; no fairy godmother or evil sisters, either. (We did have pumpkins, and mice! And hope for prosperity.) Cinderella caught me and I’m still hooked; and like me, so are readers everywhere.

Today, “Cinderella” flourishes: we have Cajun, Cambodian, Egyptian, Chinese, Caribbean, Irish, and Korean “Cinderella” books. Some time ago, I discovered still another variant, “Catskinella,” an African-American “Cinderella” tale. Not to be overlooked is Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella. So be it! It be She! Sweet Cinderella carries on her rites of passage. Nowadays and in all her ethnic variety, she stuns Princes Charming and delights earth’s children. I fondly embrace Her story as the One that befits us in a new century.


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