Born 12 March 1936, Yellow Springs, Ohio
Daughter of Kenneth J. and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton; married Arnold Adoff, 1960; children: one son, one daughter
Virginia Hamilton's heritage gives her an excellent perspective from which to view black history. She is only two generations removed from slavery; her maternal grandfather, born a slave, escaped with his mother to Ohio. Hamilton's father experienced discrimination in finding a job suited to his business-college education. Hamilton herself, born in a place that once served as a station on the Underground Railroad, attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a child.
Hamilton studied at Antioch College on a full scholarship and later at Ohio State University and the New School for Social Research. Hamilton went to New York City to further her career and, shortly after her twenty-fourth birthday, married a well-known white anthologist of black poetry. After living in New York for several years, the couple settled, with their son and daughter, in a rural home in Hamilton's native Yellow Springs.
Of the 10 books for children Hamilton has published, three are nonfiction: highly praised biographies of black activists W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson and a collection of Du Bois' writings. Two of Hamilton's fiction books, the Jahdu tales, are intended for the younger reader. Although these stories of the powerful creature Jahdu have been viewed as a portrayal of the growth of black consciousness in America, they lack a consistently developed mythic dimension.
Hamilton's most successful novels portray a child's increased awareness of self and of the child's heritage. Zeely (1967), which received the Nancy Block Memorial award for promoting interracial understanding, traces the maturing of 11-year-old Elizabeth Perry, who in her search for identity assumes the name Geeder. She becomes Elizabeth again through the wisdom of the beautiful and proud black woman, Zeely, who teaches her an important lesson about their African heritage.
The House of Dies Drear (1968) is a very successful, somewhat gothic mystery, which received the Edgar award in 1968. Hamilton utilizes the setting, a small Ohio town where the abolitionist Dies Drear operated a station on the Underground Railroad, and the protagonist, 13-year-old Thomas Small, to communicate an important aspect of the history of blacks in America.
Hamilton's most highly acclaimed novel is M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974), which in 1975 received the Newbery Medal, the National Book award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. In this novel, set in the hills of Appalachia, Hamilton skillfully uses point of view to explore the consciousness of a maturing teenager who comes to understand his relationship to his family, its past, and Sarah's Mountain, where his runaway-slave ancestor settled with her child. The element of black history is very significant; equally important, however, is Hamilton's portrayal of the destruction of the mountain by strip miners and the subsequent effect on the hill people.
Hamilton's other novels are more experimental in theme and technique. In The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), set in New York City, Hamilton enters the world of the street-wise Buddy Clark and his friend, Junior Brown, a 300-pound musical prodigy who finally retreats into his own private world of madness. Arilla Sun Down (1976) utilizes the complexities of the stream-of-consciousness technique to mirror the confused identity of the part-black, part-Indian girl, Arilla Adams. The novel, however, is sometimes difficult to follow.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hamilton continued to produce well-written and well-received biographical and fictional books; in addition she published the phenomenally popular picture book, Jaguarundi in 1994. She stands at the forefront of children's literature. In her many and varied works, she never condescends to her child reader in style, tone, or theme. These books will continue to appeal to adults and children because of the truth Hamilton sensitively and perceptively presents through her characters, settings, and creative storylines.
The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969). W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (1972). Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu (1973). Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man (1974). Illusion and Reality (lecture, 1976). The Justice Cycle: Justice and her Brothers (1978). Dustland (1980). The Gathering (1980). Jahdu (1980). Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982). The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1983). Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1983). A Little Love (1984). Junius Over Far (1985). The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985). The Mystery of Drear House (1987). A White Romance (1987). In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (1988). Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave (1988). Bells of Christmas (1990). The Dark Ways: Stories from the Spirit World (1990). Cousins (1990). All Jahdu Storybook (1991). Drylongso (1992). Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (collection, 1993). Plain City (1993). Looking for America (1994). Her Story: Marican Folktales (1995). When Birds Could Talk (1996). A Ring of Tricksters (1997). Second Cousins (1998).
CA (1971). MTCW (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
A Teleconference with Virginia Hamilton (video, 1993). CA (video, 1991 & 1993). English Elementary Reader (Apr. 1971). Horn Book (Dec. 1972, Aug. 1975). In Print: Maurice Sendak, Virginia Hamilton (video, 1984). Instructor (February, 1994). Meet Virginia Hamilton (video, 1988 & 1998). NYTBR (13 Oct. 1968, 22 Sept. 1974, 31 Oct. 1976). Virginia Hamilton (audiocassette, 1992). Virginia Hamilton (videos, 1978 & 1991).
—MARTHA E. COOK