Virginia Esther Hamilton was born, as she said, "on the outer edge of the Great Depression," on March 12, 1934. The youngest of five children of Kenneth James and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, Virginia grew up amid a large extended family in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The farmlands of southwestern Ohio had been home to her mother's family since the late 1850s, when Virginia's grandfather, Levi Perry, was brought into the state as an infant via the Underground Railroad.
Virginia graduated at the top of her high-school class and received a full scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs. In 1956, she transferred to the Ohio State University in Columbus and majored in literature and creative writing. She moved to New York City in 1958, working as a museum receptionist, cost accountant, and nightclub singer, while she pursued her dream of being a published writer. She studied fiction writing at the New School for Social Research under Hiram Haydn, one of the founders of Atheneum Press.
It was also in New York that Virginia met poet Arnold Adoff. They were married in 1960. Arnold worked as a teacher, and Virginia was able to devote her full attention to writing, at least until daughter Leigh was born in 1963 and son Jaime in 1967. In 1969, Virginia and Arnold built their "dream home" in Yellow Springs, on the last remaining acres of the old Hamilton/Perry family farm, and settled into a life of serious literary work and achievement.
In her lifetime, Virginia wrote and published 41 books in multiple genres that spanned picture books and folktales, mysteries and science fiction, realistic novels and biography. Woven into her books is a deep concern with memory, tradition, and generational legacy, especially as they helped define the lives of African Americans. Virginia described her work as "Liberation Literature." She won every major award in youth literature.
Following is a brief account of the highest of the highlights of her remarkable career. Listed dates note the years of publication rather than when a prize was awarded.
1967 Virginia's first book, Zeely, is published. It is named an ALA Notable Book and wins the Nancy Bloch Award.
1968 The House of Dies Drear wins the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery.
1971 The Planet of Junior Brown is named Newbery Honor Book and wins the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.
1974 M.C. Higgins the Great wins the Newbery Medal, making Virginia the first African American author ever to receive this honor. In addition, the book wins the National Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Peace Prize of Germany, New York Times Outstanding Children's Book of the Year and Hans Christian Andersen Honor Book, among others. This marked the first time a book had won the grand slam of Newbery Medal, National Book Award and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. This feat has rarely been repeated.
1979 Virginia is a delegate to the Second International Conference of Writers for Children and Youth in Moscow
1982 Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush wins the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, IBBY Honor Book Citation, Newbery Honor Book, and the American Book Award, among others.
1984 The Virginia Hamilton Lecture in Children's Literature is established at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. The Virginia Hamilton Lecture has grown into the Virginia Hamilton Conference and is the longest running event in the United States to focus solely on multicultural literature for children and young adults. (http://virginia-hamilton.slis.kent.edu/)
1985 The People Could Fly wins the Coretta Scott King Award, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year Award, Booklist's Editor's Choice and New York Times Best Illustrated Book, among others.
1987 Virginia and Arnold are named distinguished visiting professors at Queens College in New York.
1988 In the Beginning is named the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, National Science Teachers Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, Newbery Honor Book, Parents Magazine's Best Book of the Year, Time magazine's One of the Twelve Best Books for Young Readers and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, among others.
1989 Virginia is named distinguished writing professor, Graduate School of Education, The Ohio State University.
1990 Virginia receives the Catholic Literary Association's Regina Medal. The only criterion for this award is excellence. The Regina Medal is awarded annually to a "living exemplar of the words of the English poet Walter de la Mare “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young,' for continued, distinguished contribution to children's literature."
1992 Virginia wins the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing, the highest international recognition bestowed on an author or illustrator of children's literature. She was only the fourth American to win the award, which has been presented every other year since 1956.
1993 Virginia delivers the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture in Richmond, Va.
1993 Virginia speaks at the Pacific Rim Conference in Kyoto, Japan.
1995 Virginia becomes the first children's book author ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the "genius award."
1995 Virginia is awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."
1996 Virginia is a recipient of a NAACP Image Award for Her Stories.
2001 Virginia is awarded The University of Southern Mississippi de Grummond Medal for lifetime achievement in children's literature. This was Virginia's last public address. It also marks the first and only time that she appeared professionally with her son, Jaime Adoff.
She continued to write, travel and lecture, spending time with her son Jaime in New York City and daughter Leigh in Berlin, Germany.
Virginia Hamilton died of breast cancer on Feb. 19, 2002. Three books have been published posthumously: Time Pieces, Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl, and Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny.
Her first grandchild, Anaya Grace Adoff, was born Nov. 26, 2008.