Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations

Introduction by Rudine Sims Bishop

In the thirty-five years between the publication of her first book, Zeely, in 1967 and her death—too soon—in 2002, Virginia Hamilton earned a place of honor in the pantheon of children’s literature. Zeely, with its focus on an ordinary Black girl and her family, its implicit celebration of “Black is beautiful,” and its evocation of Black history, opened the modern era in African American children’s fiction. Zeely and all of Hamilton’s subsequent books were about illuminating Black experience in America, the journey of Black people across what she called the American hopescape. She stated, more than once, that she saw her work as helping to portray “the essence of a people who are a parallel culture community of America,” while at the same time revealing the universality among peoples.

That Hamilton was enormously successful in this endeavor is evident from the honors and awards she received throughout her distinguished career, during which she published more than forty books. She was given, for example, four honorary doctoral degrees, and was the first children’s book author to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius award.” In the field of children’s literature, she garnered every major national and international honor for which her work was eligible—the John Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, the National Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, to name just a few. By the close of the twentieth century she had become the most highly honored American author of children’s books.

This collection of Hamilton’s essays and speeches is significant, then, in part because it sheds light on the genius behind her profoundly important body of work. These pieces show Hamilton as a serious scholar of history and folktales, and make clear the importance of place, time, family, and history to her and to her work. At the same time, they present a portrait of the writer as literary artist—her creative use of language, her far-reaching imagination, her innovative mixing of the everyday with the unusual or near-bizarre, her sure sense of who she was and what she was about. They illuminate the process—the blending of “the known, the remembered, and the imagined”—through which she created her unique and critically acclaimed canon.

These pieces also show how and why Hamilton’s work is central to the canon of African American children’s literature. Through various genres—including biography, fiction, and folktales—her books explore some of the major themes of that genre, themes relating to family, history, and heritage. In her first published essay she wrote, “Perhaps some day when I’ve written my last book, there will stand the whole of the black experience in white America as I see it.” She had other interests, too, such as the environment, but she never wavered from her determination to relate her version of Black peoples’ journey across the American hopescape. She also never wavered from her determination to have it understood that the story of that journey was a vital part of the American story, and her work a vital part of the canon of American literature for young people.

This collection, then, helps to clarify why Virginia Hamilton was one of the premier writers of African American/American children’s literature. It is a gift to anyone with an interest in American literature, but especially to the many scholars, teachers, librarians—and readers of Hamilton’s books—who understand the importance of her work. For those of us who knew and admired her, this collection offers the chance to “hear” her voice again, and to be reminded once more of the enormity of her talent and the richness of her legacy.

Rudine Sims Bishop