Born: March 12, 1936
Died: February 19, 2002
Ohio connection: Birth
“If you can dream it, then you can have it.” A powerful axiom, it encapsulates the accomplishments and triumphs of its speaker, Virginia Hamilton. Descendant of a maternal grandfather who escaped from slavery in Virginia to settle in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Hamilton grew up amidst siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts on a large farm. Rural sights, sounds, and smells lingered in her imagination and remained an influence beyond her formative years. Masterful storytellers, Hamilton’s parents kept her spellbound, inculcating a reverence for the construction and delivery of a finely crafted story. It was within these narratives that a reverence for heritage, culture and tradition was stressed, dynamic themes that can be found throughout Hamilton’s published works. Attending a small rural school, Hamilton remained the only African American girl in her class until she reached her early teens. She excelled in her studies, and her tremendous promise was recognized, so that she was able to enter nearby Antioch College, where her writing talent was further encouraged. Spending her summers in New York City working as a bookkeeper, she found that she was earning more during those brief vacations than was possible in Ohio, so she yielded to the temptation to leave Antioch before graduation and go to New York. With a part-time clerical job and a low-rent apartment in the East Village, Hamilton began to devote her time to writing. During her fifteen-year stay in New York, she lived within a fascinating and diverse community of musicians, artists, and other writers. Here she met a kindred soul, Arnold Adoff, teacher, poet, graduate student, and impresario of jazz musicians. On March 16, 1960, the couple married. Hamilton continued to write, and finally in 1967 her first book, Zeely, a children’s story, was published. Hailed by both critics and readers alike, Zeely was conspicuous for its superb literary quality, as well its break with contemporary fiction by its depiction of an African American family not overwhelmed by poverty and hopelessness.
Hamilton went on to write over 35 more books, including two biographies, six collections of folktales, and many fictional works. Several of her books have been honored with multiple awards, including M. C. Higgins, the Great, which earned her the distinction of being the only author to have won the Newbery Medal, the Boston-Globe Hornbook Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the National Book Award, and the International Board on Books for Young People Award for a single published book. In such works as Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, The Planet of Junior Brown, and Anthony Burn, Hamilton utilized such diverse techniques as: stream of consciousness; shifting time periods, and elements from many other fictional genres. In two of her later books, A Little Love and White Romance, such controversial topics as teenage sex, drugs, and music are dealt with by story characters. Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton sought to redress a disparity she perceived within the publishing industry. Out of an estimated 5,000 new children’s titles published every year, a miniscule number, even as low as forty, are representative of African-Americans. Virginia and Arnold later returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to raise their daughter, Leigh, and son Jaime, within the environment that fueled the imagination of their mother. The recipient of every major award and honor in her field, Virginia Hamilton-Adoff has had a lasting impact on children’s literature. Virginia Hamilton died of breast cancer on February 19, 2002, in Dayton, OH.
Notable Children’s Book citation, American Library Association, 1967, and Nancy Block Memorial Award, Downtown Community School Awards Committee, New York, both for Zeely; Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery, Mystery Writers of America, 1969, for The House of Dies Drear; Ohioana Literary Award, 1969; John Newbery Honor Book Award, 1971, for The Planet of Junior Brown; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1974, John Newbery Medal, and National Book Award, both 1975, and Gustav-Heinemann- Friedinspreis fur kinder und Lugendbucher (Dusseldorf, Germany), 1991, all forM. C. Higgins, the Great; John Newbery Honor Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and American Book Award nomination, all 1983, all for Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush; Horn Book Fanfare Award in fiction, 1985, forA Little Love; Coretta Scott King Award, New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book citation, Children’s Book Bulletin Other Award, and Horn Book Honor List selection, all 1986, all for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales; Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1988, and Coretta Scott King Award, 1989, both for Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave; John Newbery Honor Book Award, 1989, for In the Beginning: Creation Stories from around the World; D.H.L., Bank St. College, 1990; Regina Medal for lifetime achievement, Catholic Library Association, 1990; Hans Christian Andersen Award, U.S. nominee, 1992, for body of work; Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement, American Library Association, 1995; received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, 1995; Coretta Scott King Award, 1996, for Her Stories; L.L.D., Wright State University; honorary doctorate, Ohio State University.