Folklore in Books by Virginia Hamilton

Compiled by Tina L. Hanlon

Novels Collections of Folklore and History References
Back to Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction

Virginia Hamilton's Collections/Illustrated Books of Folklore and History

Note: Most of these collections contain some Appalachian tales but not all are identified by specific place of origin. Most of these beautifully designed and illustrated books also have bibliographies of folklore and historical sources. Some of the links below are to AppLit pages that show how African American tales from other areas compare with specific Appalachian tales. Hamilton, a native of Yellow Springs, Ohio (north of the Appalachian mountains), was named Virginia because her grandfather was taken from slavery in Virginia to Ohio in the 1850s, and then his mother disappeared with her name unknown.

The All Jahdu Storybook. Illus. Barry Moser. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991. Combines previous volumes (from the late 1970s), with four new stories about the trickster boy-hero Jahdu. This is a hero Hamilton made up, not based on a particular culture but similar to trickster characters in traditional tales. He is a little creature born in an oven next to brown and black loaves. In some tales he turns into a real boy (in Harlem, for example) and into other objects and animals. There is a combination of traditional rural settings and modern mechanical images and city visits. Some stories contain pourquoi tales, explaining how Jahdu's exuberant exploits make the gray grass turn green and provoke the unmoving sea to start sending waves over the shore to cool the hot sands. Hamilton's Afterword explains how removal of the female narrator in a frame story makes the tales more suitable for young 1990s readers. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl. Illus. James Ransome. New York: Scholastic/The Blue Sky Press, 2003. A retelling, using Gullah speech, of the familiar story about Brer Rabbit outwitting Brer Fox.

The Dark Way: Stories from the Spirit World. Illus. Lambert Davis. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1990. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

The Girl Who Spun Gold. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Scholastic/The Blue Sky Press, 2000. Not a collection, but a beautifully illustrated adaptation of "Mr. Titman," a West Indian tale similar to "Rumpelstiltskin." Lit'mahn is the enchanted man who spins gold for the king's bride. The colloquial language, according to Hamilton, reflects "a lilting West Indian speech pattern, then and now." The artists used "acrylic paint on acetate, over-painted with gold paint. The gold borders were created using gold leaf." See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Scholastic/Blue Sky Press, 1995. "Miz Hattie Gets Some Company" is an animal tale about cats from southwestern VA, "written down in the colloquial speech of the Plantation Era, generations before the Civil War. It is a pourquoi—or why—story and a creation story, in which the Lord created the cat [from his glove] for Miz Hattie because she was so lonely" and was plagued with mice and rats (p. 19). "Malindy and Little Devil" (in which a child sells her soul to a devil but tricks him by giving a shoe sole when she grows up) is found in nineteenth-century versions in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Some of the tales give no place of origin or refer to WPA collections from southern states. The section "Her True Tales" contains true life stories by two women in North Carolina, and one who moved from eastern Kentucky to central Ohio. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World. Illus. Barry Moser. New York: Harcourt, 1988. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site. The only North American tales in this book are Eskimo, Blackfoot, Huron and Maidu (Indians of California).

Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Knopf, 1993. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site. Labeled a companion to The People Could Fly, with a similar cover illustration, this book tells many historical stories of the slave trade, runaway slaves, and the coming of Emancipation or Jubilee. It describes little-known and famous African Americans and their helpers on the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Nat Turner, Equiano, and the fictional Eliza in H. B. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, who escaped from Kentucky with her children. Several of the stories important to Appalachian history also describe escapes across the Ohio River from southern states. "Exodus to Freedom" tells of Margaret Garner, who tried to escape with her family from Boone Country, KY, was caught in Cincinnati, and killed her daughter because she would rather have her children dead than in slavery. "An Unnamed Fugitive" is about an escaped slave who found work during the Civil War with the Union army in a WV regiment. Major Sherwood was then almost court-martialed for refusing to return fugitive slaves to their owners.

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Knopf, 1985. The tales are from different parts of eastern North America. "Carrying the Running-Away" is a true slave narrative told by a former slave in Kentucky who rowed runaways across the Ohio River. Notes on "Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby," and "Tappin, the Land Turtle," (first told by a slave in Alabama from the west coast of Africa) are on AppLit page Kanahena or Why the Turtle's Shell is Cracked. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies and Africa. Illus. Barry Moser. New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1997. See illustrations and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original Scare Tale for Halloween. Illus. Barry Moser. New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 2001. "James Lee and Uncle Big Anthony become victims of Wee Winnie Witch, who takes them on a ride up into the sky, but Mama Granny saves them" (WorldCat).

When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing. Illus Barry Moser. New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1996. Based on black cante fable tales collected by Alabama folklorist Martha Young after the Civil War. (Young lived in Greensboro, in southwest AL.) Notes on "Blue Jay and Swallow Take the Heat" are on AppLit page The First Fire. See picture and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

Folklore Themes in Novels

M. C. Higgins, the Great     The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl      Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush

Hamilton, Virginia. M. C. Higgins, the Great. New York: Macmillan, 1974. (First book by an African American author to win a Newbery Medal.) See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site. For more on this novel, see AppLit's Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.

Excerpt from M. C. Higgins in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. Eds. Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. See Thematic Table of Contents for Listen Here in AppLit.

Hamilton, Virginia.  The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1983.

See also Tracy L. Roberts' bibliography on John Henry in AppLit.

Hamilton, Virginia. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. New York: Avon, 1982. (A Newbery Honor Book)

See also

Hamilton, Virginia. Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave. New York: Knopf, 1988. Retelling of the true story of a Virginia slave who escaped to Boston and the controversy that resulted when his former master tried to reclaim him as a fugitive slave. See cover and details at Virginia Hamilton web site.

Hamilton, Virginia. Time Pieces. New York: Scholastic/Blue Sky, 2002. A semi-autobiographical novel in which an Ohio girl learns about her grandfather's childhood as a slave who escaped from Virginia.

Yellow Springs Cemetery

Yellow Springs, Ohio
photo by Tina L. Hanlon, June 2009

References (mostly compiled in 2003)

Apseloff, Marilyn. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature in Education, vol. 14 (Winter 1983): pp. 204-13.

Apseloff, Marilyn. "Creative Geography in the Ohio Novels of Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 8 (1983): pp. 17-20. Discusses Hamilton's use of real Ohio places with creative variations, such as moving Glen Helen (near Yellow Springs) farther south to the higher hilly area on the Ohio River in M. C. Higgins, the Great. The "witchy" Killburn family seems more real because the setting helps "to anchor them to reality."

Bishop, Rudine Sims. "Virginia Hamilton." The Horn Book Magazine, vol. 71 (July-August 1995): pp. 442-5.

Clark, LaVerne Harrell. Keepers of the Earth. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 1997. This novel is relevant to Hamilton mainly because Virgil Coachwhip is one of the spirits in The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, and there is folklore about coachwhip snakes in Texas and Arizona. The novel is described in "A Tucson Author Spins A Yarn As Big As Texas In Her Debut Novel" by Charlotte Lowe: "Tusconian LaVerne Harrell Clark's first novel, Keepers of the Earth, draws you into a lost world of central Texas hoodoo and regional colloquialisms, rampant with cousin-lust, family feuds and oil greed. Clark keeps up a driving pace in this full-to-bursting novel of mysterious connections between an underworld ruled by a nest of coachwhip snakes, and a family that's moved into town and away from their land—and each other. Two parallel stories are intertwined: One is that of Cefus, an old, black man instructed in the ways of a hoodoo conjurer, who's now seeking a use for his fading knowledge. He's suddenly needed when a nest of coachwhips is disturbed on Munday land, a situation he knows will wreak havoc and death to everyone involved, including his own relatives." The white Munday family occupies the second story.

Collins, Carol Jones. "A Tool for Change: Young Adult Literature in the Lives of Young Adult African-Americans." Library Trends, vol. 41 (Winter 1993): pp. 378ff.

Hamilton, Virginia. "Ah, Sweet Rememory!" Horn Book Magazine (December 1981): pp. 633-40. An important essay on Hamilton's views of memory and history in literature.

Hamilton, Virginia. "Everything of Value: Moral Realism in Literature for Children." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 6 (Summer 1993): pp. 363-77. Hamilton eloquently describes her visit to Virginia to give this speech in Richmond in relation to her family history, her grandfather's origins as a slave in Virginia, and her use of African American history in her writings. Referring to her great-grandmother, she said she was "completing a circle of history in which my own family history is profoundly centered . . .. I come of my own volition as Levi Perry's mother left under hers, leading him" (p. 364). Since her family history before this was unknown, Hamilton linked her drive to write stories with her "curiosity about the rest of my family history, which is tantalizing, forever out of reach. . . . In a sense, I create a past through writing. I create beginnings as well as endings."

Hamilton, Virginia. "Hagi, Mose, and Drylongso." The Zena Sutherland Lectures, 1983-1991. Ed. Betsy Hearne. New York: Clarion, 1992. pp. 75-91.

Hamilton, Virginia. Illusion and Reality. Washington, D. C.: Library of Congress, 1976. Book, 18 pp. Also Sound Recording. Library of Congress Lecture presented at the Library of Congress, Nov. 17, 1975, in observance of National Children's Book Week, under the auspices of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund.

Hamilton, Virginia. "The Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined: Celebrating Afro-American Folktales." Children's Literature in Education, vol.18 (Sum 1987): pp. 67-76. Abstract from ERIC: "Enumerates the value and benefits of the black oral tradition, and describes the typical organization and identifying characteristics of American black folktales. Stresses the importance of 'telling the tell,' or storytelling, for children and adults to maintain family traditions and remember shared heritage."

Hamilton, Virginia. Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal acceptance. The Horn Book Magazine, vol. 71 (July-August 1995): pp. 436ff.

Abstract: The winner of the 1995 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal discusses her career as an author. She is African-American and writes about her culture, history and her personal life. Her works includes books about slaves, African-American women in history and children's lives.

Hamilton, Virginia. "Thoughts on Children's Books, Reading and Ethnic America." Reading, Children's Books, and Our Pluralistic Society. Ed. Harold Tanyzer and Jean Karl. Newark: International Reading Association, 1972. pp. 61-64.

Hamilton, Virginia. "Virginia Hamilton: Continuing the Conversation." New Advocate, vol. 8 (Spring 1995): pp. 67-82.

Hamilton, Virginia. Overview of life and work, with autobiographical sketch written for 1978 edition, The Junior Authors and Illustrated Series, pub. by H. W. Wilson.

Hanlon, Tina L. "'It Was Sad, But It Was Good': Appalachian Folklore and History in Stories by Virginia Hamilton." Paper presented at Children's Literature Association Conference, El Paso, Texas, June 7, 2003. Many of the ideas from this paper are included in the outline of the novel The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, above.

Herrin, Roberta. "Folk Medicine for the Wee Folk." Paper presented at Appalachian Studies Association Conference, Eastern Kentucky Univ., Richmond, KY, March 30, 2003. Abstract in AppLit.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "High John de Conquer." The American Mercury, vol. 37 (1943): pp. 450-58. Rpt. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. This book also contains essays that give an overview of versions of the John Henry legend.

Manna, Anthony and Carolyn Brodie, eds. Many Faces, Many Voices: Multicultural Literary Experiences for Youth. The Virginia Hamilton Conference. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1992. Includes "A Toiler, A Teller" by Virginia Hamilton, "The Next America" by Arnold Adoff, "The Magic of Imagining: Transaction with Young Adult Fiction and Poetry" by Arlene Harris Mitchell, "A Conversation with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack" by Anthony L. Manna and Carolyn S. Brodie, "Making The Journey by Sheila Hamanaka, "A Journey Toward a Common Ground: The Struggle and Identity of Hispanics in the U.S.A." by Nicholasa Mohr, "The Mythic Dimensions of Appalachia" by Gary D. Schmidt, "Literature in the Pediatric Setting: The Use of Books to Help Meet the Emotional and Cognitive Needs of Chronically Ill Children" by Marcella F. Anderson, "Jewish American Experiences in Children's Books" by Esther Cohen Hexter, "Deep Like the Rivers" by Ashley Bryan, "Word Magic" by Barbara Juster Esbensen, "The African American Folktale in the Primary Classroom" by Darwin L. Henderson.

Mikkelsen, Nina. "Diamonds within Diamonds within Diamonds: Ethnic Literature and the Fractal Aesthetic." MELUS, vol. 27 (Summer 2002): pp. 95ff. Available online through library databases. Excerpts:

"We might be reminded of Hamilton's use of the infinity apron in The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl as a conjure trick. In the Georgia forest, Mother Pearl stands before a poplar tree that she describes as a 'woman and yellow' because 'she's so old' (75) and asks the ancient African spirit Dwahro to paint on her apron a picture of her with dyes she helps him make from bark, leaves, and roots. After he draws the first picture, he must draw another picture on the apron of the first picture, on and on, picture within picture within picture, in this nesting box configuration that later saves them when the illusion of the endlessly repeating design hypnotizes the bandits that threaten them.

African scaling designs (those with different sizes of the same shape) as Eglash explains, range from the unconscious, intuitively inspired to the consciously intended. They might be an expression of aesthetic appreciation, or they might be applied as part of a knowledge system. Members of a culture attain higher and higher levels of social knowledge and group identity when traditions are passed down through enacted rituals or creative endeavors. The infinity apron in Hamilton's Magical Adventures produces a vision of unlimited imagination, a valuing of gender/age/nature (woman as poplar tree), female work (the apron), and artistic endeavor (painting on the apron). Because imagination is linked to art, and art is linked to action, the knowledge is that art, or the creative imagination, can produce change in the world (the reverberating images of the infinity picture quell the bandits). Painted picture-as-story becomes both a survival strategy (the conjure trick) and a way to preserve heritage and culture.

Hamilton's use of the foremother's 'tell' (the Great Mother as Storyteller tradition) in Second Cousins reveals the fractal scaling pattern in actual use or what Eglash describes as an "age-grade initiation system" (68), in which certain rituals allowed members to attain more complex, more advanced levels of identity." (148-49).

"We see the theme of cyclical rebirth in Song of Solomon [by Toni Morrison] .... We see it in Hamilton's The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, in which a legendary god-child Pearl, child of Mother Pearl, goddess of Mount Kenya, travels to America 'within' Pearl. Once there, when Pearl needs the wisdom and experience of her 'future' adult form, Mother Pearl emerges from within Pearl (a future self-within-a-self adult role) to serve as both personal and communal Great Mother. Then Pearl has a parental form to fill her with stories (legends, folktales, and myths), and she is able to assume her own future role as griot."

Mikkelsen, Nina. "Insiders, Outsiders, and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African American Children? African American Review, vol. 32 (Spring 1998): pp. 33ff. Available online through Academic Index.

Abstract: One of the main concerns of supporters of multicultural stories for children is the authenticity of literature written for African American children. An analysis of children's literature reveals that the multicultural book is thoroughly researched to provide realistic dimensions and historical data. Research also indicate that African American story collectors and authors possess the critical expertise needed in choosing the best multicultural stories for children.

Mikkelsen, Nina. "Strange Pilgrimages: Cinderella Was a Trickster—And Other Unorthodoxies of American and African-American Heroic Folk Figures." A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic in Children's Popular Culture. Children's Literature and Culture Series. Eds. Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins. New York: Garland, 2000. pp. 21-50. Compares several of Richard Chase's tales with European variants to show special features of American tales. "Three cultural symbols" of American tales are "the emergent adolescent . . ., the trickster using initiative to gain his ends, and the road as passage to opportunity." Chase's "Ashpet" and Virginia Hamilton's tales such as "Catskinella" (in Her Stories) show that female tricksters occur in Appalachian and African American tales more than has been previously recognized and they are more self-reliant than European Cinderella characters. Connections with Zora Neale Hurston's African American folklore from Florida are also noted. The essay argues that folktale traditions contain more interesting heroes than current popular culture attractions such as Disney World.

Mikkelsen, Nina. Virginia Hamilton. New York: Twayne, 1994. Overview of Hamilton's life and work, with discussions of each book written by 1994.

Mikkelsen, Nina and Joan Kaywell. "Young Adult Literature." English Journal, vol. 86 (Jan 1997): pp. 109ff.

Abstract: On the use of 16 books by Virginia Hamilton in the school curriculum. Hamilton's books may be used as literature for interdisciplinary studies. Different clusters of books may be used as basis for school units including science, history, social science, literature and English language arts. For science, the cluster can include MC Higgins the Great, The Justice Trilogy, Junius Over Far, and The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. Bibliography.

Moore, Opal, and Donnarae MacCann. "The Uncle Remus Travesty, Part II: Julius Lester and Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 11 (1996): pp. 205-10.

Moss, Anita. "Mythical Narrative: Virginia Hamilton's The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl." The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 9 (1985): pp. 50-57. Gives an overview of the novel and its use of African American myth and folklore.

Muse, D. "The World She Dreamed, Generations She Shared, Visions She Wrote: A Tribute to Virginia Hamilton 1936-2002." The New Advocate, vol.15, Part 3 (2002): pp. 171-174.

Porte, Barbara Ann. Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. The New York Times, 4 Sept 1983: p. 14.

Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. The Horn Book Magazine, vol. 59 (June 20, 1983): p. 312.

Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. The New York Times 12 June 1983: p. 20.

Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. Publishers Weekly, vol. 223 (March 4, 1983): p. 99.

Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. School Library Journal, vol. 29 (May 1983): p. 32.

Rev. of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. School Library Journal, vol. 29 (April 1983): p. 123.

Rochman, Hazel. "The Booklist Interview: Virginia Hamilton." Booklist, vol. 88 (1 Feb. 1992): pp. 1020-21.

Russell, David. "Cultural Identity and Individual Triumph in Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great." Children's Literature in Education, vol. 21 (Dec. 1990): pp. 253-59.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. "'I Double Never Ever Never Lie to my Chil'ren': Inside People in Virginia Hamilton's Narratives." African American Review, vol. 32 (Spring 1998): pp. 46ff. Available online through library databases. Focuses on analyzing age, race, and gender in The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl and Zeely.

Abstract: Award-winning author Virginia Hamilton's works focus on racial issues particularly those pertaining to African Americans. The most common topic discussed in her books are the impact of exclusion and inclusion on society. Hamilton acknowledges the influence of the black power movement and Malcolm X on her books which reflect the importance of African-American culture in American history. She has written over 20 children's books since she wrote her award-winning first novel Zeely in 1967.

Virginia Hamilton Web Site.

Virginia Hamilton. Internet School Library Media Center, James Madison University. A page of links to a variety of resources on Hamilton, including lesson plans.

Virginia Hamilton. Overview of her work and annotated bibliography in
Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site.

Virginia Hamilton page with photo at African American Literature Book Club (

A Visit with Virginia Hamilton. "Award-winning author Virginia Hamilton reflects on the power of history and family, and the fine art of storytelling." At

Wilentz, Gay. "If You Surrender to the Air: Folk Legends of Flight and Resistance in African American Literature. MELUS, vol. 16 (Spring 1989-Spring 1990): pp. 23-32. Issue on Folklore and Orature. Full text accessed online through JSTOR 4/5/03. Good article comparing modern novels for adults by men and women in their use of images of flight from African American legends. Hamilton's retelling of "The People Could Fly" is discussed briefly.

This page created 10/19/02. Last update: 8/3/09
Links checked 6/12/03

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