Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations

Newbery Acceptance Speech: M.C. Higgins, the Great

It is my great pleasure to accept the Newbery Medal. I am so very grateful to the American Library Association, whose Newbery-Caldecott Committee selected M.C. Higgins, The Great as the most distinguished book for children in American in 1974.

In my hometown, which is a small, relatively obscure Midwestern community, my family has been, if not well-known and well-heeled, at least talked about from one generation to the next. My mother’s large, extended and complex Perry clan literally plummets individual Perrys into the spotlight. For example, it was an uncle of mine who single-handedly cornered the culprits who successfully robbed a nearby bank. Rather than be taken in by a madman with nothing more on than a flannel nightshirt and Jack Daniels on his breath, who shot at them with two gold-plated pocket pistols, they jumped down an empty well, breaking arms and ankles—and then legs and wrists when uncle staggered too near the edge and plummeted down the well on top of them.

It was another uncle of mine who had the finest, sleekest black touring car in the county in 1937. And in the same year, on the clearest, sunniest summer day on record, he met his maker when he spotted an elk in the trees at the side of the road; whereupon he grabbed his shotgun at the ready next to him, took careful aim and with deadly accuracy shot it whilst he and the touring car sailed serenely over a cliff at twenty miles per hour.

It was my favorite, immensely superstitious aunt who was the first among the Perrys to come in at the middle of Orson Welles’ alarmingly realistic radio version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. On that scary night of mists back in 1938, Aunt Leah terrified and aroused Perrys in three counties to limited action against invading Martians. Apparently my own immediate family of Hamiltons knew enough about Perrys to spend the next six hours sensibly in grandpa Perry’s root cellar while all of the male relatives and Aunt Leah searched the skies and shotgunned anything that moved.

Don’t blame me if tomorrow you discover the three tales I’ve related are exaggerations. For they were told to me by other Perrys, and none of us is know to tell a story the same way twice. What I meant to imply by the above confessional is that folks in my community have been primed for three-quarters of a century to expect some action from my end of town. I’m sure little or nothing is know of the exploits of Perrys in the last quarter of the century because they were too busy acquiring land, I suspect, and seed and wives, and generally keeping their hands on the plow so that subsequent Perrys might raise Hell and tell tales of one another in the relative security of mounds of millet and manure.

So that when it was announced in the local papers that one of the Perry clan was the recipient of this Medal, particularly the older members of my community were more or less conditioned to respond. There were not surprised.

“I wasn’t a bit surprised,” an octogenarian of my acquaintance told me at the reception given me by the Greene County Library, Yellow Springs Branch. Although my elderly friend did seem a bit disappointed that the Medal had not been given me for something slightly more outrageous than writing the best children’s book of the year. Still, she soon seemed happy enough and pumped and patted my hand long and hard.

Yet I’ll never forget the gentleman who, after regarding me from a distance for a time, quietly came forward, his face and glasses still wet and foggy with rain. It rained a total of 38 hours before, during and after my reception; the land flooded, but still hundreds from my county and for miles around came out to visit with me. This gentleman, red-necked and suspendered, solemnly spoke: “You may not recollect me,” he said, “though I do recall you from a child. I am the elder Standhill and I knew your dad, and I must say, Kenny Hamilton would have been good and proud of you upon this day.”

Something inside me went dead quiet at the sound of the man’s stark Midwestern voice, sweet to my ears and so like my own late father’s stirring accent. I caught the essence of it and filed it away in that place where writers keep extraordinary human sounds, while struggling with my memory and the gentleman’s not unfamiliar face.