Collection opens door to genius of Virginia Hamilton

“Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations” edited by Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook (Blue Sky Press, 368 pages, $29.99)

When the author Virginia Hamilton died in 2002, her husband, the poet Arnold Adoff, could not bear to go into her office at their Yellow Springs home. Finally, he felt the will to enter.

The result is a collection of previously unpublished “speeches, essays and conversations.” Kacy Cook, Adoff’s co-editor on the project, wrote that “Arnold had found himself unable to enter Virginia’s office in the years after her death. He had taken to opening the door a crack and tossing things on the floor inside.”

In the introduction, Rudine Sims Bishop describes Hamilton’s achievements: “In the field of children’s literature, she garnered every national and international honor for which her work was eligible — the John Newberry Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the National Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Hans Christian Anderson Award, to name just a few. By the close of the 20th century, she had become the most highly honored American author of children’s books.”

Hamilton grew up in Yellow Springs and attended Antioch College. Throughout her long career, she lived and wrote in the village of Yellow Springs. This collection provides insights into her craft; how she wrote, what she visualized, how she conceptualized.

In one speech, she related that “Fiction is the creation of reality. The primary subjects of fiction are emotions, beliefs, and human values. By the age of four or five, we have experienced everything we need to write fiction — love, rage, boredom, loss, guilt and fear, and even death. There is personal experience as well as the experience of observation, and both can elicit profound emotional responses in the would-be writer.”

As I perused her articulations and observations, I recalled the pleasure of conversing with Virginia. We had some memorable interviews on WYSO Public Radio.

In our 1999 interview on WYSO, she expressed her view that “I think parents should read to their children. Children should read to parents. A lot of reading should be going on — a lot of talking. A lot of people don’t talk to one another.”

Yellow Springs was a good place for her to work. People left her alone. She said, “Writers write by themselves. I go for months without seeing many people. A lot of times, people think I’m not in town because I’m not here physically; I’m at my work.”

She talked about her awards: “It’s very nice to have them. It sort of gives me courage — like reading Faulkner early in the morning, which is something I do sometimes.”

It was splendid to read this collection and to hear her voice again on my old tapes. Her intellect dazzled me and she could say offbeat things. She loved the rural space around Yellow Springs — she said, “I always feel that the grain silos look like spaceships.”

This year, the American Library Association presented its first Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Contact book reviewer Vick Mickunas at

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