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Virginia Hamilton's 'liberation literature' continues to open doors for young readers

Hamilton is the most award-winning YA author in American literary history, with dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction to her credit. Among other prizes, she won a National Book Award and was the first children's writer to win a MacArthur "Genius" Grant.

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Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tuesday, March 15 2022: Interview with Marie Yovanovitch; Review of Virginia Hamilton's young adult novels.



This is FRESH AIR. A recent collection of novels by a celebrated YA author, who died in 2002, has made our book critic Maureen Corrigan newly aware of all the good books out there that she doesn't even know she wants to read.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: She's the most award-winning YA author in American literary history, totaling 41 works of fiction and nonfiction. Among other prizes, she won a National Book Award and was the first children's writer to win a MacArthur genius grant. She was also the first African American author to win a Newbery Medal. If this were a "Jeopardy!" question, until a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have known the answer is who is Virginia Hamilton? When Hamilton's first novel came out in 1967, I was a tad older than her target audience. But more to the point, I don't remember being given any works of fiction back then that weren't written by white people. Hamilton helped break open the YA genre, making it more inclusive. She called her books liberation literature because they centered on African American characters and history. But like all great, imaginative writing, Hamilton's novels also liberated her readers into a wider world.

Last fall, the Library of America brought out a one-volume edition of five of Hamilton's most celebrated YA novels. Their tone is like nothing else I've read. Hamilton's stories are suffused with an off-kilter weirdness, humor and a sense of menace that her young characters intuit but the adults around them have become numb to. That danger often has its roots in racism. Take Hamilton's 1968 novel, "The House Of Dies Drear," which won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. The main character's a young boy named Thomas Small, who's moving to Ohio because his history professor father has gotten a position at the local college.

Thomas is what I now think of as a typical Hamilton protagonist. He's optimistic, autonomous and too curious for his own good. The huge old house the family is moving into, once owned by a man named Dies Drear, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thomas's father tells him the original blueprints have been lost, so no one knows how many tunnels or hidden rooms riddle the house. In a Nancy Drew mystery, this would be a setup for a romp through hidden passages strewn with gems. Here, the haunted tunnels hold the subterranean history America would rather forget. And not all the ghouls are supernatural.

A few nights after moving in, the family returns from an outing and is greeted by this sight - (reading) a large sack of flour had been emptied over the entire kitchen floor. It had been spread evenly in a layer, and over the layer had been poured water and apple juice. The whole mess had been mixed into a sticky brown paste, which was spread over the kitchen table, over the stove and sink counters, over all the chairs and parts of the walls. The door of the Frigidaire hung open, and whatever food could be squeezed had been squeezed onto the floor. The whole room, the windows, everything glistened with this unspeakable icing. Throughout the house of Dies Drear, Hamilton toggles back and forth between the threat of the supernatural and the evil work of all too human hands.

In Hamilton's 1974 novel, "M.C. Higgins, The Great," which won the National Book Award, the dangers to young Mayo Cornelius, or M.C. Higgins, and his family loom above their heads. M.C., his parents and younger siblings live in deep country on a mountain near the Ohio River, a mountain named after M.C.'s great-great-grandmother who escaped from slavery. A mining company has set up near the summit of the mountain, digging out tons of soil to get to a coal seam. There's an enormous black boil of uprooted trees and earth plastered together by rain hanging suspended on the mountain. And MC is the only person who takes seriously the danger of that heap of debris sliding slowly down the mountain towards his family's little house.

"M.C. Higgins, The Great" is such an evocative novel about how the places poor people live are the places ripe for plundering. But I'm making Hamilton sound heavy-handed when her novels never are. Hamilton's biographer, Julie K. Rubini, tells a story about Hamilton sitting in her editor's office, describing being haunted by an image of a boy with lettuce leaves wrapped around his wrists. That boy would become M.C., who loads rabbit traps with lettuce when his struggling family needs food. Hamilton's editor reportedly told her, you just need to follow this boy, and the story will reveal itself. That's how Hamilton's novels read - fluid, inevitable and full of purpose.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels" published by the Library of America. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the hidden world inside our bodies, from the remarkable design of our organs to the messages contained in our body fluids, and how things turn foul when something goes wrong. My guest will be Dr. Jonathan Reisman, author of "The Unseen Body." He's a pediatrician, internist and ER physician who's worked in different cultures and in extreme climates. I hope you'll join us.

We'll close with music by jazz pianist Jessica Williams. She died last Thursday, a week before her 74th birthday, after a period of declining health. We frequently play her music in our show. And back in 1997, I recorded an interview with her in which she was at the piano. We're planning on featuring that conversation and performance sometime soon. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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