Virginia Hamilton (1934–2002) was the author of more than forty books for children, young adults, and their older allies. Throughout a career that spanned four decades, Hamilton earned numerous accolades for her work, including nearly every major award available to writers of youth literature. In 1974, M. C. Higgins, the Great earned Hamilton the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal (which she was the first African-American author to receive), and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, three of the field’s most prestigious awards. She received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition bestowed on a writer of books for young readers, in 1992, and in 1995 became the first children’s book author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Award.” She was also the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award.
Virginia Esther Hamilton was born, as she said, “on the outer edge of the Great Depression,” on March 12, 1934. The youngest of five children of Kenneth James and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, Virginia grew up amid a large extended family in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The farmlands of southwestern Ohio had been home to her mother’s family since the late 1850s, when Virginia’s grandfather, Levi Perry, was brought into the state as an infant via the Underground Railroad.
Virginia graduated at the top of her high-school class and received a full scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs. In 1956, she transferred to the Ohio State University in Columbus and majored in literature and creative writing. She moved to New York City in 1958, working as a museum receptionist, cost accountant, and nightclub singer, while she pursued her dream of being a published writer. She studied fiction writing at the New School for Social Research under Hiram Haydn, one of the founders of Atheneum Press.
It was also in New York that Virginia met poet Arnold Adoff. They were married in 1960. Arnold worked as a teacher, and Virginia was able to devote her full attention to writing, at least until daughter Leigh was born in 1963 and son Jaime in 1967. In 1969, Virginia and Arnold built their “dream home” in Yellow Springs, on the last remaining acres of the old Hamilton/Perry family farm, and settled into a life of serious literary work and achievement.
In her lifetime, Virginia wrote and published 41 books in multiple genres that spanned picture books and folktales, mysteries and science fiction, realistic novels and biography. Woven into her books is a deep concern with memory, tradition, and generational legacy, especially as they helped define the lives of African Americans. Virginia described her work as “Liberation Literature.” She won every major award in youth literature.