Virginia Hamilton: Writer of “Liberation Literature”

Virginia Hamilton, self-described writer of "Liberation Literature,"* was born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the same place where her grandfather was brought to freedom as an infant through the Underground Railroad. Yellow Springs has a connection to our area because it was here that Moncure Daniel Conway brought his newly-freed slaves from Stafford County to settle in the days just before the Civil War.

She graduated first in her high school class and received a full scholarship to Antioch College, transferring to Ohio State College where she majored in The House of Dies Drearliterature and creative writing. In 1958, she moved to New York City where she worked as a museum receptionist, cost accountant, and nightclub singer, all the while dreaming and working on a career as a writer. She studied fiction writing at the New School for Social Research and while there met her future husband, Arnold Adoff--a poet and anthologist from the South Bronx and a son of Russian immigrants. Her husband worked as a teacher while she pursued her writing and looked after their children. Their children--writer-poet-teacher Jaime Adoff and opera singer Leigh Hamilton--continue the family traditions of arts and education.

The family moved back to her hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1969, a place that clearly inspired the author in many of her famous works. Her award-winning mystery, The House of Dies Drear, set in a house along the Underground Railroad in Ohio, is such a book, as is M.C. Higgins the Great, a Newbery Award-winner whose lead character lives on  an Ohio mountain slope that their family has owned for generations, but it’s now in the shadow of a dangerous strip mining operation.

Until breast cancer took her in 2002, Virginia Hamilton wrote 41 books spanning many genres--historical fiction, non-fiction, modern fiction, folktales, and more. She is said to be the most award-winning author in children’s literature.

Fast Facts:

  • Born: March 12, 1936, in Yellow Springs, Ohio
  • Parents: Kenneth James (a musician) and Etta Belle (Perry) Hamilton
  • Education: Antioch College, 1952-55; Ohio State University, 1957-58; and New School for Social Research, 1958-60.
  • Married: March 19, 1960, to Arnold Adoff, an anthologist and poet
  • Children: Leigh Hamilton and Jaime Levi
  • Died: February 19, 2002, in Dayton, Ohio
  • Occupation: Children's writer
  • First Novel: Zeely, 1967.
  • Selected Awards: The Edgar Allan Poe Award for The House of Dies Drear, 1969; Newbery Honor for The Planet of Junior Brown, 1971; Newbery Award and National Book Award for M.C. Higgins the Great, 1975; The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award; and The Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Click here for a complete list of awards.

M.C. Higgins the GreatWhile each of her books is noteworthy and most were award-winning, I will mention a few that should not be missed besides those already discussed. Zeely, her first book, tells of a young city girl coming to visit relatives in the country and how she learns some life lessons from a woman she believes to be an African queen. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales contains 24 stories that are wonderfully told and beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.  Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave has another connection to our area, as Anthony Burns was raised in Stafford County and served as a lay preacher at Union Church in Falmouth.

For a recently-written overview of this writer’s ideas and works, check out the book: Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations. Having received so many awards, now there is one in her name to bestow on later generations. The American Library Association created the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award to honor African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults that demonstrate sensitivity to “the African American experience via literature and illustration.”

More on the Web:

*Virginia Hamilton: America’s Most Honored Writer in Children’s Literature

Virginia Hamilton Resources from Scholastic

These articles are among the many on this author that are available in our online Research Collection:

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. "'I double never ever never lie to my chil'ren': inside people in Virginia Hamilton's narratives." African American Review 32.1 (1998): 146+.Biography in Context. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

"Virginia (Esther) Hamilton." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Biography in Context. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

"Virginia Hamilton." Almanac of Famous People. Gale, 2011. Biography in Context. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.