I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Kwame Alexander prior to a Toledo-Lucas County Public Library event several years ago. His eyes lit up when I shared Ohio University Press was publishing my biography of Virginia Hamilton for younger readers. I mean, LIT UP! We spoke about Virginia’s incredible body of work, awards, accolades. And of course, being the poet he is, Kwame was curious about how Ms. Hamilton’s husband, poet and teacher Arnold Adoff, was doing, and trying to figure out a way he could make it down to Yellow Springs on his tour for a visit.
Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. Buy here.
During the Q & A session, an attendee asked about the need for diverse works for younger readers. In a tip of the hat to Virginia, Kwame offered that yes, we need to continue to work toward providing new titles authored by diverse writers. But, Kwame said, we also need to take a look at what is already on our shelves.
Virginia Hamilton is the most honored author of children’s books. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal in 1975, for M.C. Higgins, the Great. This incredible story of a young man in Appalachia, facing the loss of his home, went on to also win the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the first book to win all three awards.
M.C. Higgins, the Great. Buy here.
Virginia wrote forty-one books for children throughout her career. Beginning with her first, Zeely, a story that features a Watutsi queen, published in 1967, to Wee Winne Witch’s Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, illustrated by Barry Moser, published by Blue Sky Press posthumously in 2004. It received Hamilton’s final starred review from Kirkus. She received 16 of the coveted Kirkus starred reviews in her career.
Zeely. Buy here.
Awards and Accolades
Look up any major award for children’s literature, and you will find Virginia Hamilton among the recipients. The John Newbery Medal, The Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the International Board on Books for Young People Honour Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her body of work, Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association, and the Coretta Scott King Award recognition a number of times. That’s just the beginning of the list. Virginia was the first children’s book author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant.”
The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Children was established at Kent State University in 1984 and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is given every other year to a children’s book author or illustrator.
Have you read Virginia Hamilton’s books?
Yet, when I talk about Virginia during school and library visits, very few hands go up when I ask if children, educators, and library media specialists have read her works. On a certain level, I get it. Sadly, Virginia died in 2002, after a private ten-year battle with breast cancer. It has been 17 years since her last work was published.
Her amazing books were at risk of getting buried on the shelves, among the those that during visits to the library, Virginia would get “side-swiped every time by all those straight-back sentinels in long still rows. Short books and tall books, blue books and green books.”
Have no fear. Virginia’s works have a new, bright shiny light being shone on them.
Library of America to the rescue!
Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Buy here.
The Library of America is publishing a collection of five of Virginia’s novels, to be released in September 2021. Once again Zeely (1967), The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974), and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), will be available to entertain, inspire and educate readers, of all ages.
So, there you go, Kwame. Both older and newer diverse works for children, featured prominently on those shelves for all to enjoy.