Back Virginia Hamilton, “Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer”

Virginia Hamilton (1936–2002)
From Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels

First American edition of M.C. Higgins the Great (1974), and Virginia Hamilton in the publicity photo distributed by Macmillan in 1967 for the publication of Zeely, her debut novel. (Barbara Goldberg/Macmillan)

Fifty years ago, in 1972, Virginia Hamilton had a eureka moment.

“I burst in on my editor and shouted the news that I had this wild, barefoot youth atop a forty-foot steel pole on the side of a mountain called Sarah’s. And if this weren’t enough of a really swell story idea, at the summit of Sarah’s Mountain was a spoil heap left from strip-mining the land, and this heap was moving relentlessly an inch at a time toward the kid atop the pole. Moreover, to cap the whole thing off, I had this incredible red-headed family of six-fingered vegetarians who were capable of healing mountains.”

“I can’t wait to read it, Virginia,” answered Susan Hirschman, an icon of children’s publishing, who was, in Hamilton’s recollection, as cautious as she was encouraging.

In truth, the elements of that novel, her fifth book, came to her over a period of six years. “No book of mine was ever in more danger of being a failed labor of love than was M.C. Higgins, The Great. None was to bring me more pleasure and pain in the writing,” she told the audience when she was awarded the John Newbery Medal—the first Black author to receive the prize. The novel also won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and became the first book to receive the trio of top honors in American children’s literature.

A year before Hamilton burst into Hirschman’s office, she wrote “Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer” for publication in a journal for English teachers; in the article, she described how her early writing career in New York led her back home to Ohio. You can read Hamilton’s short memoir at our Story of the Week site, with an introduction detailing how a “happy accident” launched her career as a writer of books for young readers.

Read “Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer”

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