Today it’s my great pleasure to introduce MUF readers to a brand new collection titled Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels, which will be published by Library of America on September 28. The volume, edited by Mixed-Up Files contributor, Julie K. Rubini, includes five of Hamilton’s best known and most beloved works as well as twenty beautifully restored illustrations, (ten in full color for the first time); a newly researched chronology of Hamilton’s life and career; and a selection of other related writings, such as her Newbery Award Acceptance Speech and an essay titled, “Nonwhite Literature as American Literature: A Proposal for Cultural Democracy.”
The Library of America has generously offered to send one lucky winner a copy of Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Click on the Rafflecopter at the bottom of the interview for chance to win. (U.S. only.)
About Virginia Hamilton
Virginia Esther Hamilton (March 12, 1936-February 19, 2002) was the author of forty-one books. Her many achievements include winning The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1974 and a National Book Award and the Newbery Medal in 1975, for her novel, M.C. Higgins, the Great. It was the first book to win all three awards. Not only was she the first African American to win the Newbery Medal, she was also the recipient of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award).
For more on Virginia Hamilton, see our archived post here.
About the Novels Included in the Collection
In Zeely (1967), Geeder Perry and her brother, Toeboy, go to their uncle’s farm for the summer and encounter a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Watusi queen and a mysterious night traveler. (Full color spread of the Zeely interior art, presented in full color in this edition for the first time.)
In the Edgar Award–winning The House of Dies Drear (1968), Thomas Small and his family move to a forbidding former waystation on the Underground Railroad—a house whose secrets Thomas must discover before it’s too late.
Junior Brown, a three-hundred-pound musical prodigy, plays a silent piano in The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), while his homeless friend Buddy Clark draws on all his New York City wit to protect Junior’s disintegrating mind. This novel was adapted for a 1997 film of the same name.
In the National Book Award–winning M.C. Higgins, The Great (1974), Mayo Cornelius Higgins sits atop a forty-foot pole on the side of Sarah’s Mountain and dreams of escape. Poised above his family’s home is a massive spoil heap from strip-mining that could come crashing down at any moment. Can he rescue his family and save his own future? Must he choose?
And in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), fifteen-year-old Tree’s life revolves around her ailing brother, Dab, until she sees cool, handsome Brother Rush, an enigmatic figure who may hold the key to unlocking her family’s troubled past.
An Interview With the Publisher and Editor
Interviewed here are: Brian McCarthy, Associate Publisher for Library of America, and Julie K. Rubini, who is the author of Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller as well as the editor of this new collection.
Dorian: Can you tell us a bit about the decision to create this beautiful book at this time and how you all determined which novels to include?
Brian: Virginia Hamilton was a major figure in American children’s literature and a natural for inclusion in the Library of America, which honors the full range of great American writing in authoritative new editions. In framing this volume we looked to her breakthrough novels of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which have stood the test of time with readers and critics and continue to inspire and delight some fifty years after they were written. In many ways, the social justice movement of the last year and a half has made these five books more resonant than ever, simply by the way they center African American young people and their families, powerfully underscoring that Black lives matter. (As for the beauty of the Library of America edition, much of the credit goes to star book designer Kimberly Glyder, who created a gorgeous original portrait of Hamilton for the cover.)
Dorian: What was your experience like in re-reading these five works by Virginia Hamilton for the collection?
Julie: In reading Virginia’s works for research purposes for my biography, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller (Ohio University Press, 2017), I focused more so on Virginia, the writer. I wondered about her process, her life during the time she wrote each novel. I studied where she was living while creating these amazing works, wanting to learn more about her life in both New York City and Yellow Springs. I tried to learn how changes in her life, from meeting and marrying Arnold, to becoming a mother, and ultimately a successful author with many demands for her time, impacted her writing and stories. When I read these five novels in the collection again, I read them as someone who simply wanted to enjoy and get lost in her work. What a joy it was to rediscover her incredible imagination and characters through this process. I can’t wait to receive my author copies to enjoy yet again in this wonderful collection!
Dorian: Can you tell us a little bit about what you discovered about Virginia Hamilton the person through your research?
Julie: Everyone I spoke with described Virginia as kind, loving, always willing to give of her time, and yet always keeping Arnold and their two children as her priority. Virginia was naturally shy, but rose to the occasion for the hundreds of speeches and presentations she shared through her career. She loved sharing coffee with Arnold throughout the day, comparing notes on their work, Arnold’s homemade marinara sauce bubbling away in the kitchen. Virginia embraced technology, graduating from her portable Olivetti typewriter to marveling over the ease of rewriting on personal computers. Virginia’s favorite animal was the jaguar, and she had a collection of frog figurines from her extensive travels!
Dorian: I’m sure you both love all of Virginia Hamilton’s novels, but which is your personal favorite and why?
Julie: I have a special place in my heart for The House of Dies Drear. I hadn’t read the novel before beginning my research for my biography. After my first meeting with Virginia’s husband, the late (and great!) Arnold Adoff, I learned it was his favorite of all of her works. Arnold became a friend through the process of sharing her life journey with younger readers, so although difficult to choose a favorite, Virginia’s mystery set in a home that was part of the Underground Railroad has my vote, in honor of their epic love story.
Brian: I do love all these novels, but my favorite is Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, from 1982, a deeply unsettling story of a family haunted (literally, as it happens) by abuse. Through the painful journey of fifteen-year-old Teresa, or Tree as she is known, Hamilton crafts an inspiring portrait of the power of forgiveness. I defy any reader not to be completely won over by Tree.
Dorian: Why do you think Virginia Hamilton’s work has so much staying power?
Julie: Virginia often stated that her work always began with the central character, and eventually the story revealed itself to her. Virginia had the most incredible imagination, bringing us characters such as M.C. Higgins, who sits on top of a 40-foot pole watching over his beloved Sarah’s Mountain, the regal and mysterious Zeely, curious Thomas Small, and the streetwise and witty Buddy. Virginia’s characters remain some of the most unique characters in children’s literature.
Brian: I agree that character is key with Hamilton. She had a matchless gift for dialogue, for capturing the way that young people think and speak, that makes her novels feel profoundly true. And she had tremendous faith in her readers. While these books are great fun, full of wonder and imagination, as Julie says, they are also very serious in the themes they explore—from the legacy of slavery and environmental depredation to homelessness and mental illness—never shying from addressing the harder aspects of coming of age. They take us to the places where compassion begins.
Dorian: Virginia Hamilton is known as the most honored author of children’s literature of all time, yet her work is not as widely read as it should be. How do you hope Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels will change this?
Julie: The book is absolutely beautiful, inside, and out. It is my hope that through this recognition and exposure of her work in the Library of America collection, that educators will once again embrace her work and include it within their curriculums. Ultimately, hopefully more children will discover Virginia’s incredible writing voice and get caught up in her amazing work.
Brian: Hard as it is to imagine, a new generation has come of age in the nearly twenty years since Hamilton’s untimely death. All of us at Library of America hope that this volume will serve as an occasion for readers and reviewers to rediscover her work, to admire anew its range and fearless truth-telling.
Library of America Online Speaker Series
Dorian: The Library of Congress, home of Virginia Hamilton’s papers, is collaborating in the promotion of Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Could you elaborate on this?
Brian: Yes, we’re thrilled to announce that on October 6 Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, will sit down with acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson to discuss Hamilton and her legacy as part of Library of America’s free online speaker series, LOA Live. Please visit www.loa.org/events for more information.
Thanks so much Brian and Julie for carrying on Virginia Hamilton’s legacy and for taking the time to talk to us about this wonderful new book.
For a chance to win a copy of the book, click on the Rafflecopter link before Monday, Sept. 27 at 11:59 PM (U.S. Only).