Virginia Hamilton was a pioneer of afrofuturism, a celebrated literary icon, gifted storyteller and noted children’s book author who released more than two dozen books including, The House of Dies Drear, Justice and her Brothers, The People Could Fly, The Planet of Junior Brown, and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales.
Hamilton’s family has a long history in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she was born on March 12, 1936. The award-winning author’s maternal grandfather arrived in Yellow Springs via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, and with him likely came a multitude of tales passed down from one generations to the next.
As a child, Hamilton found herself enthralled with reading and writing. She devoured countless books and won prizes in elementary school for her love of reading. Her family and teachers encouraged and helped cultivate what began as a passion for words that grew into a prolific talent.
Writing was perhaps destined to be a major part of Hamilton’s life as her father and husband were both poets, and one of her sisters worked as a journalist.
Her first children’s book was the 1967 novel, Zeely, about a young Black girl and her brother spending the summer on their uncle’s farm where they forge a friendship with a majestic protagonist who bears a striking resemblance to a photograph of a Watusi queen. Zeely was the first Hamilton book to land on the American Library Association’s Notable Books list, and introduced her to a collective of readers who fell in love with her work.
In an interview with Scholastic, Hamilton shared why she became an author of children’s books. “I think because I’ve always written, from the time I was a child, and it was something that stayed with me throughout my entire educational life,” she explained. “Although I did other things, too, I always came back to writing. In college, I studied writing, and I really felt that it would be possible for writing to be a fine career for me. Writing children’s books was a happy accident….I simply wrote, and I had a friend who worked at a publishing house who submitted one of the stories I’d written in college to the children’s editor. And that became my first book, ‘Zeely.’”
Hamilton led readers on a journey that often-times challenged them to tap into to the furthest corners of their imagination. But pocketed between folkloric tales were surreptitious lessons on self-esteem, and gentle reminders that Blackness is a multifaceted representation of power, perseverance, grace, strength, beauty, and magic.
Having earned numerous accolades, such as the Edgar Allen Poe Award and Coretta Scott King Award, Hamilton was among the most decorated authors of her time. She also became the first Black woman to win the Newberry Medal for excellence in American children’s literature, which she received for M.C. Higgins the Great, a 1974 coming-of-age novel that she would later reveal to be the “hardest” book that she had ever written.
Although Hamilton died of breast cancer in 2002, her voice is immortalized in a collection of 41 books that will entertain readers for years to come, and inspire fellow Black writers to build literary legacies however they see fit.