Juvenile Books Author of the Month
12 March 1936 -- 19 February 2002
Virginia Esther Hamilton was born on March 12, 1936 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to Kenneth James Hamilton and Etta Belle (Perry) Hamilton. Her father was a musician and her mother a homemaker. Hamilton was the youngest of five children. She had two older sisters and two older brothers.
Hamilton's family history was very influential in making her the person and the writer that she is. Her maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, was a fugitive slave, who was sold as an infant with his mother. He never knew his father. Levi's mother helped him escape from bondage in 1857 from Virginia, when they fled to Ohio on the Underground Railroad. When he settled in Ohio, Levi's mother disappeared and was never seen again. The family believes that she went back to work on the Underground Railroad, where something happened to her. Levi lived with friends who helped raise him. He married Rhetta Adams who was descended from both freed slaves and Cherokee Indians. They settled in Yellow Springs, where they had a large family, including Hamilton's mother Etta Belle.
Hamilton's family struggled during the Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal did not seem to help the region where she was growing up as much as it did the rest of the country. Her family worked a number of acres to grow enough produce to allow them to sell surplus to a local grocer. The Hamiltons were successful in their goal, often selling produce to the grocer by the bushel.
It was in this environment that Hamilton learned to appreciate stories and storytelling. Both the Perry and the Adams families appreciated sharing tales. "I come from a long line of storytellers," explains Hamilton. "We didn't just simply state facts in our family. Events became happenings. There was always a beginning, a middle, and an end to what we said. We were a family of farmers, but my father, Ken Hamilton, and my mother's people communicated by way of stories. I'm a tale teller who writes her stories down." 
Hamilton lived a quiet, rural life exploring the countryside with her cousing Marleen, who was her best friend. They had the run of all the adjoining farms, which were owned by their aunts and uncles, whom they would stop to visit during their adventures.
Hamilton idolized her father when she was a child. Ken Hamilton had graduated from Iowa State Business College, a rare accomplishment at that time for an African American. He was able to find a job that made use of his education. He loved to read, particularly the works of Wendell Wilkie and W.E.B. DuBois. It was this love that helped push Hamilton to develop as a person. "Books were an important part of our lives -- Poe, DeMaupassant, many of the classics. I didn't realize then how unusual it was for a man like my father to have such a library. It was an important factor in my education."
As a child, Hamilton attended a small country school where she excelled. She was the only African American girl in her class until she was in the seventh grade, but that did not stop her from succeeding. It was in the seventh grade that she started writing. She balanced this with running track and cheerleading in high school. She graduated from high school with honors.
Despite her early academic success, Hamilton had not planned on attending college. This view changed when she learned that one of her teachers had arranged a full scholarship to nearby Antioch College. Although she was desperate to leave small-town life behind and head for the big city, Hamilton enrolled at Antioch and took writing courses there from 1953 to 1956. She then transferred to Ohio State University to study literature from 1956 to 1958.
It was while she was taking classes at Ohio State that one of her professors advised her to leave college and go to New York to try to get published. For a while, she went back and forth between Ohio and New York, spending one semester at school and one in New York. Finally, she decided to take her chance and try to make it in the Big Apple. She settled in the East Village where she found a job as a cost accountant for an engineering firm. She worked mornings and spent each afternoon writing. She also began attending literature classes at the New School for Social Research, where she met a number of other talented artists and writers.
One of the writers she met in 1957 was Arnold Adoff. He was a poet, an anthropologist, and a teacher. Adoff and Hamilton married on March 19, 1960. Following their marriage, they traveled for several months to Spain and North Africa. Their travels provided an experience that had a profound effect on Hamilton and her writings.
Adoff and Hamilton had two children together, both of whom are now adults. Their daughter Leigh Hamilton Adoff is an opera singer, and their son Jaime Levi Adoff is a rock musician. After several years of living in New York, Hamilton and her family moved to Ohio and built a home on her family's land in Yellow Spring in 1969.
When she married Arnold Adoff, Hamilton had been working on her writing for a number of years, though none of her work had been published. Then a chance suggestion changed that. One of Hamilton's friends from Antioch College was an editor for Macmillan Publishing Company. This friend asked Hamilton about a story she had written in college and suggested that she turn it into a book for children. Hamilton recalls, it was "...a happy accident--the kind of luck that hits you if you hang around New York long enough. I never really decided to write for children. It just happened about the time I was having trouble breaking into the adult writing field."
Fortunately, instead of giving up, Hamilton wrote her first novel for young people. It was called Zeely and was published in 1967. It launched a successful career that has led to the publication of more than thirty books for children and young adults ranging from native African folklore to science fiction to biographies. Even her realistic novels include elements of dream, myth, history, and legend. Through her stories, Hamilton documents the rich heritage of African Americans, showcases strong family ties, introduces distinctive and memorable characters, and weaves compelling stories.
Hamilton died on February 19, 2002 of breast cancer in Dayton, Ohio.
Information for this biography was taken from:
1) Biography Today: Biographies of People of Interest to Young People; Omnigraphics, Inc.: Detroit, MI, 1992.
2) Tracy Chevalier (ed.). Twentieth Century Children Writers; St. James Press: New York, 1989.
3) Anne Commire (ed.). Contemporary Authors, #31; Gale Research Company: Detroit, Mich., 1983.
4) Akosua Demann and Inez Ramsey. Virginia Hamilton (http:falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/hamilton.htm).
5) Thomas McMahon (ed.). Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 21; Gale Publishing: Detroit, MI, 1997.
6) "Virginia Hamilton, 1936-", Gale Literary Databases: Contemporary Authors (http://galenet.gale.com).
5) "A Visit With Virginia Hamilton", Virginia Hamilton (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/pages/biostuff.htm).
J-P-HAM Cousins (1990) -- Concerned that her grandmother may die, Cammy is unprepared for the accidental death of another relative.
J-Hamilton Drylongso (1992) -- As a great wall of dust moves across their drought-stricken farm, a family's distress is relieved by a young man called Drylongso, who literally blows into their lives with the storm.
J-P-HAM The House of Dies Drear (1968) -- An African American family tries to unravel the secrets of their new home, which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
J-Hamilton The Mystery of Drear House: The Conclusion of the Dies Drear Chronicle (1987) -- An African American family living in the house of long-dead abolitionist Dies Drear must decide what to do with his stupendous treasure, hidden for one hundred years in a cavern near their home.
J-Hamilton Plain City (1993) -- Twelve-year-old Buhlaire, a "mixed" child who feels out of place in her community, struggles to unearth her past and her family history as she gradually discovers more and more about her long-missing father.
J-LPeD-HAM The Planet of Junior Brown (1951) -- Already a leader in New York's underground of homeless children, Buddy Clark takes on the responsibility of the overweight, emotionally disturbed friend with whom he has been playing hooky from eighth grade all semester.
J-Hamilton Second Cousins (1998) -- The sequal to Cousins. The friendship of twelve-year-old Cammy and Elodie is threatened when the family reunion includes two more cousins near their age, and Elodie is tempted to drop Cammy for a new companion.
J-P-HAM Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1985) -- In October of 1938 on their homestead in Ohio, an African American family is caught up in the fear generated by the Orson Welles "The Martians Have Landed!" broadcast.
J-398.2-HAM The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) -- Retold African American folktales of animals, fantasy, the suprenatural, and desire for freedom born to the sorrow of the slaves, but passed on in hope.
J-398.2082-HAM Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (1995) -- A spirited celebration of African American women. Through traditional stories, Hamilton presents the strength dreams, and the precious gift of life and love of women from generation to generation.
J-973.7115-HAM Many Thousands Gone: African Americans From Slavery to Freedom (1993) -- Recounts the journey of African American slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, and extended group of people who helped fugitive slaves in many ways.
Virginia Hamilton (http://www.virginiahamilton.com) -- This is the official website of authoress Virginia Hamilton. It has pictures, a biograhy, and information about her books.
Virginia Hamilton Biography (http://falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/hamilton.htm) -- This brief biography gives a quick overview of Hamilton's life and touches upon some of her books.
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