Liberation Literature: Virginia Hamilton’s Legacy

The 2020 Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth has been postponed due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19. Despite the cancellation of this year’s conference, Virginia Hamilton’s legacy and the liberation literature movement live on.

Virginia Hamilton blended together art, politics, and social justice to portray the complexities of the African-American experience. As an advocate for representing counter-narratives, she referred to her body of work as “Liberation Literature.” Liberation Literature allows the reader to experience the protagonist’s suffering, but also their triumphs, liberating both the protagonist of the story and the reader.

virginia hamilton liberation literature

Virginia Hamilton & Liberation Literature

Hamilton grew up near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Named after her grandfather’s home state, Hamilton’s passion for literature was inspired by her family’s love of storytelling. Her grandfather passed down his story of escaping from slavery as a child by crossing the Ohio River. Hamilton carried on this storytelling tradition by becoming an author. Like the storytellers in her family, she passed down the heritage, culture, and history of her people. Hamilton gave a voice to those who once were voiceless and underrepresented in children’s and young adult literature.

She has written in a variety of different genres—from slavery-era stories to young adult novels. For her works, she has received many literary awards. She won the Newbery Medal for M. C. Higgins, the Great in 1975. And she received the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1983), The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1986), and Her Stories (1996). Additionally, she received the National Book Seal Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal.

Paving the way for the Liberation Literature movement, Hamilton inspired other multicultural children’s authors and illustrators to share their stories. The authors and illustrators highlighted below were featured in the Reinberger’s “Celebration of Liberation Literature Display.” These authors and illustrators also are recipients of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. This award recognizes an American author or illustrator whose body of work demonstrates artistic excellence and contributes to the field of multicultural literature for children and adolescents.


floyd cooper liberation literature

Floyd Cooper

Floyd Cooper, an influential author and illustrator of children’s literature, is the recipient of the 2020 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. In his books, Cooper aims to represent diverse cultures and counteract the negative images portrayed in the media. He uses a unique oil wash technique that he calls a “subtractive process.” In this process, he paints an illustration board with oil paints and then erases the paint with a stretchy eraser. Cooper enjoys demonstrating this technique for kids to show them that “there can be different approaches to age-old problems.”

Along with this year’s Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, he has won three Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Awards. He also won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry. He has won 10 ALA notables and the NAACP Image award for Mandela. Cooper also received the Simon Wiesenthal Gold Medal in 2011 for Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation and the prestigious Sankae Award in 2012 for These Hands. In 2019, Cooper won the Phoenix Award for Tree of Hope.

View Floyd Cooper’s original picturebook art in the Reinberger’s collection.


leo diane dillon liberation literature

Leo and Diane Dillon

As an interracial married couple, illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon represented people of all races. Their illustration process involved communicating, storyboarding, and producing rough sketches. They passed these sketches back and forth and added color to the final refined drawings.

The Dillons are the only two illustrators to have won the Caldecott Medal for two consecutive years for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1976) and Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1977). In 1978, the Dillons were runners-up for the Hans Christen Andersen Award and were nominated for the award a second time in 1996. They have also received the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as various Coretta Scott King Award Illustrator Honors. In 2002, they won the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award.


ashley bryan liberation literature

Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan writes and illustrates children’s books that explore the African-American experience through the lens of African oral tradition. As a poet, writer, and illustrator, Bryan creates children’s books that are full of rhythm and song all of which are meant to be shared and read aloud. His illustration style varies from geometric shapes and vivid color to line drawings that are reproduced in block prints and sepia tones.

Bryan won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for Beat the Drum Pum-Pum in 1981, Beautiful Blackbird in 2004, and Let It Shine in 2008. He has also been the recipient of many Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honors, and in 2010 he was the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient. In 2003, he also received the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award.


allen say

Allen Say

Allen Say is an Asian American author and illustrator. His books often reflect his own life experiences and explore the divide between his Japanese upbringing and his American coming of age. He focuses on themes of overcoming cultural stereotypes and finding a sense of belonging.

When interviewed in an NCCIL article, he said his artistic process involves telling stories from pictures in his mind and painting them chronologically. In 1989, Say won the Caldecott Honor Book Award for The Boy with the Three Year Nap, a retelling of a traditional Japanese folktale. In 1994, he won the Caldecott Medal for Grandfather’s Journey, which depicts his grandfather voyage from Japan to the United States. Say also received a Boston Globe Horn Book Award and the 2006 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award.


jerry pinkney liberation literature

Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney has been writing and illustrating highly acclaimed children’s books for more than 50 years, many of which explore cultural experiences and ethnic identity. He views his art as his life’s vocation. He creates his artwork and illustrations using pencil and watercolor. In 2000, Pinkney received the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. In 2006 he received the Original Art Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators.

Pinkey was the first African American recipient of the Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse in 2010. In 2016, he received the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. He also has received several Caldecott Honor Book Awards, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honors, and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.


joseph bruchac

Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac is an acclaimed author of more than 120 books for children and adults. His work often centers on the lives and folklore of Native Americans. Bruchac is of Nulhegan Abenaki descent. He is a respected elder among his people. In addition to his career as an author, Bruchac is a professional storyteller of Adirondack tales. He has performed these stories throughout the United States and Europe. Bruchac received the Hope S. Dean Award for Notable Achievement in Children’s Literature in 1999. He also won the 2005 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award.


pam munoz ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan is an award-winning author for children and young adults. Muñoz Ryan is half Mexican, and many of her works reflect her Mexican heritage. Before becoming an author, she worked as a bilingual teacher. She is the author of Echo, a Newbery Honor book and the recipient of the Kirkus Prize. Muñoz Ryan has written more than 40 children’s and YA books, including Becoming Naomi León and The Dreamer. Muñoz Ryan was the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Civil and Human Rights Award. In addition, she has won the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award (2010) and two Pura Belpré Medals.


Celebration of Liberation Literature Display


Learn more about past Virginia Hamilton Literary Award winners and the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth.

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