When Virginia Hamilton was 9, she began filling out a notebook with what she would later describe as “an accumulation of mysteries” gleaned from the oblique, coded conversation of adults. “What a wealth of adult words adorned its pages,” she recalls. “What monstrous, wonderful, devious and vindictive secrets! Her plan was to go back to her notes when she was old enough to understand them. Alas, she misplaced the notebook and never found out what shimmering revelations it contained.
The history of the notebook helps explain why Hamilton (1936-2002) became one of the most famous children’s book authors of the 20th century. She was an observer, a listener, and someone intensely sensitive to the streams of feelings and senses that moved around her. This 9-year-old note-taker became an 11-year-old novelist filling out, as she later put it, “page after page with vehement prose under the hot summer sun while lying on a slope atop the mountain. Tin roof burning pig barn “in small town Ohio. She would eventually publish 41 children’s books and become the first black writer to win the Newbery Medal.
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Indeed, between 1969 and 1997, the awards committees did not stop rewarding Virginia Hamilton. A fine collection of her writings, “Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels,” reminds us why she has been so praised and provides a wonderful excuse, if one was needed, to revisit her striking prose and singular vision. Edited by Julie K. Rubini, the volume contains a selection of Hamilton’s most important novels: “Zeely”, “The House of Dies Drear”, “The Planet of Junior Brown”, “MC Higgins, the Great” and “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. It also contains 20 first edition illustrations, a bundle of speeches, essays and letters from the author, as well as a biographical chronology and textual notes from Ms. Rubini, who wrote a biography. Hamilton in 2017 for young readers.
Hamilton’s work entered American culture in the late 1960s, at the dawn of the “problem novel” era, when children’s literature embraced more rugged stories in modern contexts. Her novels tackle difficult themes – poverty, mental illness, the legacy of slavery – but she sidesteps the sharp realism that was becoming popular. It was not her intention, she said, to capture the precise vernacular of today. His field of action was wider, his ambition more heroic. “What I write is best described as an essence of the dreams, lies, myths and disasters of a group of my blood relatives whose troubled footprints we are able to discern for the first time on this northern continent. American about 150 years ago, ”she said. in a 1973 speech. She sought to convey “an essence of language and feeling that I project as the unquenchable spirit of a whole people through imagery, space and time”.
The unquenchable spirit is there in “Zeely” (1967), a coming-of-age story about a young girl, Geeder, who, with her little brother, Toeboy, spends a summer on their uncle’s farm. There, Geeder gets the idea that the young royal she sees helping raise pigs is, in fact, a Watutsi queen. A true Hamilton character in his vitality, and the first to appear in the press, Geeder is inundated with the half-understood feelings and aspirations of early adolescence. His inner life comes to us through sentences of evocative simplicity. In a crucial scene, Geeder and Toeboy set out to bale out piles of catalogs and magazines kept in an outhouse. “Geeder had a weird feeling every time she walked into the hangar,” we read. “It was always cool and dark. She and Toeboy were barefoot and the mud floor in the shed was clean and cool. The whole place made the whispers quite natural.
The great thing about this passage, aside from the tactile power of the description, is that Hamilton doesn’t develop the “weird feeling” that Geeder has. She leaves it to us. Hamilton does it over and over again in his job. Rather than explaining her characters, she tells us what they are like. The effect is to immerse young readers in the full flow of human complexity. It is also in this shed that Geeder sees the photo of an African royal woman who seems identical to the woman of the farm.
Hamilton won an Edgar Award for “The House of Dies Drear” (1968), a mysterious story set in a spooky mansion that once served as a middle station on the Underground Railroad. Eros Keith’s illustrations for the book, included here, carry the weight of woodcuts and the dark breathlessness of nightmare. Winner of a Newbery Honor in 1972, “The Planet of Junior Brown” tells the story of two troubled boys hiding in a school in New York. “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush” (1982) is part ghost story, love story, and chronicle of family dysfunction.
The centerpiece of the collection, however, and of Hamilton’s career, is “MC Higgins, the Great” (1974), the story of an Appalachian boy whose mountainside home is threatened by a pile of mining waste. The book won both a National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. Here again, Hamilton’s genius travels lightly, in paragraphs that are marvels of significant conciseness. Notice how she deftly locates us in rural MC: “Just a few miles from the Ohio River, they were in a country where just ten years ago there had been moose and deer. It was still a deep country where people liked nothing better than the calm of staying close to home. The Age of Boys MC endured school in the steel town of Harenton. Clumsy, with shaking hands and no pine needles to touch or branches to cling to. In class, dumb, they thought they were stupid. Their teachers found them slow. They endured it all. Until the moment to return home, to relive, ingenious in the woods.
The stories we find in “Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels” are substantial in and of themselves, but they represent only a small part of what this versatile and dynamic storyteller has brought to the realm of children’s literature. Drawing inspiration from African American history and folk traditions, Hamilton has also written origin stories, fairy tales, animal stories, trickster tales, other novels, and a number of non-fiction. Writing was for her, she says, a necessity “more than sleep”. What a gift to American children, and American letters, so be it.