Award-Winning Author Virginia Hamilton Dies at 65

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Virginia Hamilton, an internationally renowned and award-winning author of children’s literature, died February 19, 2002, in Dayton, Ohio. She had been ill with cancer for a number of years. Hamilton was 65.

Hamilton was the author of more than 35 books for children and young adults, and she was considered a modern pioneer of African-American literature. Her first book, Zeely, the story of a black girl who imagines that a local, six-foot, six-inch woman is a Watusi queen, was published in 1967. But Hamilton was best known for M.C. Higgins, the Great, a children’s book published in 1975, which won a number of prestigious awards, including the John Newbery Medal, the first ever awarded to a black writer.

Born October 12, 1936, Virginia Esther Hamilton came from a multigenerational, extended family of storytellers. She grew up on a small farm in the rural community of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her grandfather, a former slave who escaped from Virginia via the Underground Railroad to Ohio in the late 1850s, would often tell his grandchildren the story of his flight to freedom. It was the combination of Hamilton’s rural upbringing, her family’s heritage, and its oral tradition that would later play a significant role in her novels.

In 1957, after three years at Antioch College and a brief stint at Ohio State University, Hamilton struck out for New York City to attend the New School for Social Research. It was while attending the New School that she met poet Arnold Adoff. The couple married in 1960. In the late 1960s, she and her husband returned to her hometown, where she resided until her death.

"It saddens me to learn that America has lost one of its national literary treasures," said Jim Latham, who, along with his wife, Pat, owns Wilkies & BookFriends in Dayton, Ohio, not far from Yellow Springs. Hamilton did a guest reading for "Make a Difference Day" at Wilkies in October 1999. "I remember Ms. Hamilton reading to the attentive youngsters gathered around her on the floor of our store and how she handled it with such grace and warmth -- signing books for each of more than 40 children. It was also our great pleasure to have spent part of an afternoon at her home and discovered the enormous love she had for children, writing, and life," Jim Latham told BTW.

Hamilton is survived by her husband, Adoff; her two children, Leigh Hamilton Adoff and Jaime Levi Adoff; her brothers, Kenneth James Hamilton Jr. and William Hamilton; and her sisters, Nina Anthony and Barbara Davis. -- David Grogan