Virginia Hamilton "has heightened the standards for children's literature as few other authors have." - Betsy Hearne, Twentieth Century Children's Writers
"A majestic presence in children's literature." - Entertainment Weekly
Growing up on a small farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the 1940s, Virginia Hamilton was lovingly embraced by the sights, sounds and smells of rural America, and by a big extended family of cousins, uncles, and aunts. All these things would come into play in the children’s stories Hamilton would spin as an adult. Likely the biggest influence on Virginia Hamilton — whom Entertainment Weekly has called “a majestic presence in children’s literature” — was the fact that her own parents were storytellers. And what stories they told!
Hamilton’s maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, had escaped from slavery as a child in Virginia by crossing the Ohio River to freedom. He had also had plenty of company in this resolve: Fully 50,000 slaves passed through Ohio or settled there during antebellum times, aided on the Underground Railroad by Shawnee Indians and white abolitionists. The aging homes where the escaped slaves hid became catacombed with secret passages and hiding spaces. All these years later, the description of what happened in those hiding places and “stations” on the Underground Railroad still makes modern children’s eyes grow wide.
Young Virginia, named for her grandfather’s home state, was one of these children listening at her mother’s and father’s knees. “My mother said that her father sat his ten children down every year and said, ‘I’m going to tell you how I escaped from slavery, so slavery will never happen to you,”’ the author related in a telephone interview. She added that she traces her own interest in literature to the fact that her parents were “storytellers and unusually fine storytellers, and realized, although I don’t know how consciously, that they were passing along heritage and culture and a pride in their history.”
Hamilton has picked up on those strains, writing or editing stories for more than 30 children’s books, including contemporary novels about teen-agers, biographies of the historical figures Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, and collections of African-American folklore and slavery-era “liberation” stories.
For her work, she has been repeatedly honored with the National Book Seal Award, the John Newbery Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and, most prestigious of all, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Still, probably her most satisfying award has been knowing the contribution she’s made for children who didn’t have family storytellers to tell them of their rich ethnic culture. “Up until this year, I think,” Hamilton said in the interview, “5,000 new children’s titles were published every year. And out of that, maybe 40 of them were African-American books.” Thanks to Hamilton, who has lent her name for the past decade to an annual conference on multicultural children’s literature — and thanks to writers who have followed her lead – the dearth of literature about the ethnic experience is beginning to change.