I didn’t know anything about Virginia Hamilton until I became a librarian.  Where were your books when I was young? I wondered.  If they’d been available in any of my school’s libraries, they weren’t prominently displayed or discussed.  

 

Part of the reason I became a librarian was because I didn’t have access to books like hers when I was growing up.  So I decided to become that person who enthusiastically recommends those little-known gems to searching students.  

As a kid, I didn’t see many brown characters like me reflected in books.  But when I ‘discovered’ Virginia’s books in a children’s literature course, I was blown away.  Not only did her characters look like me, they shared my interests:  cultural identity, history, folklore, the environment, even time travel.

I enjoyed the atypical rural setting of Zeely and the imaginative musings of the main character.  I was fascinated by the prominence of the Underground Railroad in the suspenseful The House of Dies Drear.  I was amazed at how M.C. Higgins the Great dealt with issues of the environment and poverty in such a concrete way.  The experimental style of Arilla Sun Down, with its exploration of cultural identity, left me happy that I’d ‘discovered’ it, but sad that I’d missed out when I needed it most.  

But then again, I do believe that books find you when you are ready for them. 

This realization channeled the writing desire I’d harbored for many years.  It was time to write my book, to let the world know about Virginia Hamilton.  I wanted a new generation of young people to know about her life and her stories.    

Fired up with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose, I began research.  I was heartbroken to discover that she had just passed away.  Virginia’s husband, the poet Arnold Adoff, and her sister, were extremely kind and helpful, sensing my earnestness in wanting to get the details of Virginia’s life ‘just right.’  As I learned more about her childhood, her writing habits, and her stories, I became infused with a greater sense of pride.  

Among many other awards and honors, Virginia earned the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international children’s literature honor.  She was also the first children’s writer to receive the MacArthur “Genius Grant.”  

Virginia’s perseverance and courage in the face of many obstacles inspired me to keep researching and writing.  I hope that details of her life, and her books, will inspire a new generation of readers.  

In Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the publication of

Zeely, Reflections on The Story Behind the Story:  Virginia Hamilton

 

by Mélina Mangal (First published in Bookscope by Children’s Literature Network, 2012) 

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