For someone who grew up not knowing it was possible to write for a living, author Virginia Hamilton has done all right for herself.

Winner of the Newbery Medal for distinguished contribution to childrens' literature. Awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 to the tune of $350,000. Honored with the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and a Coretta Scott King Award.

Hamilton's forte is writing for children and young adults, often with an African-American and rural slant, which mirrors her own experience. She was in Baltimore recently to speak at a convention of college bookstore owners.

"It's been remarkable," says the 60-year-old author, who has published 35 books. "I have made my living writing."

It took Hamilton a while to think of herself as a writer, but she's been interested in stories for as long as she can remember.

"My mother had 10 brothers and sisters, and they all had farms adjacent to one another," says Hamilton who was born and raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

"Our entertainment was sitting on the front porch. My father was a great storyteller. My mother was a great storyteller. They would all tell stories. They had timing and they were funny and they laughed at their own jokes. Sure, you might call it gossip, but they were stories that had a beginning, middle and an end. I learned from an early age that stories had beginnings, middles and ends."

Hamilton, the youngest of four siblings, always loved reading and eventually began writing down her own stories. By the time she got to Antioch College, she had decided to major in writing. She was so good at it, people encouraged her to head to the publishing capital of the world: New York.

"I had professors who said I should leave college and seek my future as a writer," says Hamilton, who was 19 when she left college. "I lived in the Village and worked as a bookkeeper. I had a good time."

She would go to New York, work for six months or so to save money, then take more college classes. When the money ran out she would return to New York to earn more. She went to New York permanently in 1957 when she met her husband-to-be.

She had a friend from home who held a job at Macmillan publishing company. "She asked me, 'Whatever happened to those stories you wrote in college?' " Hamilton still had those stories tucked away and, with her friend's urgings, submitted them to editors at Macmillan in the mid-1960s.

The editors liked what they saw and worked with Hamilton for about a year. The result was her first published book "Zeely," a children's novel that was published in 1967. She's been churning books out ever since.

Hamilton relies on a lot of research for her stories.

Her 1996 book, "When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing," presents eight African-American folk tales. One of the stories, "Blue Jay and Swallow Take the Heat," is about a boy named Alcee Lingo, a "find out child into everything" who becomes cold with the chills. Trouble is, all the warmth is held by mean Mr. Firekeeper, who does not like children. Blue Jay tells Swallow that he feels sorry for the child especially because he "doesn't have feathers to warm him."

So the birds set out to take some fire away from Firekeeper. After a series of close calls and mishaps, Swallow gets the fire to Alcee Lingo's house.

"And since the day Miss Swallow first carried fire to the hearth, she has floated around chimneys where it's warm. That's why we let Miss Swallow be free to build nests up there. Because we are pleased with her. We are!"

Other books, such as "Her Stories" (The Blue Sky Press, 1995), are rich with re-tellings of African-American folk tales, fairy tales and true tales that celebrate women.

"I have recast these stories for young readers and their older allies," she writes in the forward. "They are composed anew in my own written down style of telling from the forms in which they were told in the past by other tellers and collectors."

Hamilton adds a comment at the end of each story that gives a bit of history about its origin. "I like to make the connection to past generations," she says.

For instance, the comment at the end of a story titled "Good Blanche, Bad Rose and the Talking Eggs" explains, in part: "This tale was collected in the Louisiana Creole colloquial speech. Similar stories are widely known in Europe and the United States. One version was printed in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in the late 1800s and titled 'The Talking Eggs.' The earliest version likely originated from India, centuries before it was first written down. It made its way to Africa and Europe and, with variations, around the world. As people travel, so their stories travel with them."

After 15 years of living in New York, Hamilton decided to move back to her hometown. She and husband Arnold Adoff, a poet and and anthologist, built a home on a few acres of her family farm and raised their two children.

It was a good move for her, Hamilton says. "I have generations of memories."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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