Children’s Books: ‘Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels’

When Virginia Hamilton was 9, she began filling a notebook with what she would later describe as “an accumulation of mysteries,” gleaned from adults’ oblique and scrambled conversation. “What a wealth of mature talk graced the pages,” she would recall. “What monstrous, wonderful, hateful and vengeful secrets!” Her plan was to go back to her notes when she was old enough to understand them. Unfortunately, she lost the notebook and never discovered the scintillating revelations it contained.

Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels

By Virginia Hamilton

Library of America

908 pages

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The story of the notebook helps explain why Hamilton (1936-2002) became one of the most celebrated writers of children’s books of the 20th century. She was an observer, a listener and someone who lived intensely from the streams of feeling and meaning that move around her. That 9-year-old note taker became an 11-year-old novelist, filling, as she later put it, “page after page with fierce prose under the hot summer sun as she lay slanted on the scalding tin roof of the pig shed” in the small town Ohio. She would eventually publish 41 children’s books and become the first black writer to win the Newbery Medal.

Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels

By Virginia Hamilton

Library of America

908 pages

We may earn a commission when you purchase products through the links on our site.

Indeed, between 1969 and 1997, pricing commissions seemed unstoppable from flinging accolades to Virginia Hamilton. A fine collection of her writings, “Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels,” reminds us why she was so acclaimed and provides a wonderful excuse, if necessary, to revisit her striking prose and unique vision. Edited by Julie K. Rubini, the book 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 includes 20 illustrations from the first edition, a collection of speeches, essays, and letters from the author, and a biographical chronology and text notes by Ms. Rubini, who wrote a biography of Hamilton in 2017 for young readers.

Hamilton’s work entered American culture in the late 1960s, the beginning of the “problem novel” era, when children’s literature embraced heavier storytelling in modern settings. Her novels have difficult themes – poverty, mental illness, the legacy of slavery – but she sidesteps the harsh realism that became popular. It was not her intention, she said, to capture the precise vernacular of today. Her scope was broader, her ambition more heroic. What I write can best be described as an essence of the dreams, lies, myths and disasters of a bunch of my kinsmen whose troubled footprints we can first discern on this North American continent some 150 years ago. “, she said. in a 1973 speech. She tried to convey “an essence of language and feeling that I project as the unquenchable spirit of an entire people through images, space and time.”

The unquenchable spirit is there in Zeely (1967), a coming-of-age story about a young girl, Geeder, who spends a summer with her little brother Toeboy on their uncle’s farm. While there, Geeder gets the idea that the regal young woman she sees helping raise pigs is actually a Watutsi queen. Geeder, a true Hamilton character in her vitality, and the first to appear in print, is awash with the half-understood feelings and desires of early adolescence. Her inner life comes to us through sentences of suggestive simplicity. In a pivotal scene, Geeder and Toeboy are ready to squeeze stacks of catalogs and magazines kept in an outhouse. “Geeder had a strange feeling when she entered the barn,” we read. “It was always cool and shady. Both she and Toeboy were barefoot, and the barn’s dirt floor felt clean and fresh. Whispering seemed natural all over the place.’

The excellent thing about this passage, apart from the tactile power of the description, is that Hamilton does not elaborate on Geeder’s ‘strange feeling’. She leaves it with us. Hamilton does this time and again in her job. Instead of explaining her characters, she tells us what they are like. The effect is that young readers are immersed in the full flow of human complexity. In that barn, Geeder sees the photo of a royal African woman who looks identical to the woman on the farm.

Hamilton won an Edgar Award for “The House of Dies Drear” (1968), a mysterious story set in a sinister mansion once used as a way station on the Underground Railroad. Eros Keith’s illustrations for the book, included here, have the weight of woodcuts and the shadowy breathlessness of a nightmare. Winner of a 1972 Newbery Honor, “The Planet of Junior Brown,” tells of two troubled boys who hide in a New York school. “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush” (1982) is at once a ghost story, a love story and a chronicle of family dysfunction.

The centerpiece of the collection and of Hamilton’s career is “MC Higgins, the Great” (1974), the story of an Appalachian boy whose mountainside home is threatened by an impending mound of mining waste. The book garnered both a National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. Here too Hamilton’s genius travels light, in paragraphs that are marvels of meaningful brevity. Note how conveniently she situates us in MC’s rural milieu: ‘Just a few miles from the Ohio River, they were in a land where there had once been moose and deer, not more than a decade ago. It was still a deep country where people loved nothing more than to stay close to home in peace. Boys MC’s age passed school in the steel town of Harenton. Clumsy, with trembling hands and no pine needles to touch or branches to hang from. In class they thought they were stupid. Their teachers found them slow. They’ve been through it all. Until the time to go home, to live again, ingeniously in the woods.”

The stories we find in “Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels” are significant in their own right, but they represent only a small part of what this versatile and dynamic narrator brought to the realm of children’s literature. Drawing on African-American history and folk traditions, Hamilton also wrote origin stories, fairy tales, animal stories, trickster stories, other novels, and a measure of non-fiction. For her, writing, she said, was a necessity “more than sleeping.” What a gift to American children and to American letters that this was so.

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