Source of book: I own this
Virginia Hamilton isn’t a household name these days, although she did win a Newbery for M. C. Higgins, The Great back in 1975. That is a shame. Hamilton was the first African-American female author of books for children to gain national recognition. The Newbery was only one of the many awards her books won, and she paved the way for a significant increase in diversity in children’s literature during my lifetime.
Recently, the Library of America released a hardback edition of five of her novels. Since I like to encourage the publication of minority authors (and indeed any unjustly neglected author whose books are out of print or otherwise difficult to find), I went ahead and splurged on a new copy. My youngest still enjoys being read to, so I decided we should read one. We started with Zeely, mostly because it was the first one in the book.The original illustrations by Symeon Shimin
The book is about a journey of self-discovery, but it doesn’t have much actually happen. It is character and internally driven, not plot driven. Elizabeth and John, sister and younger brother, get on the train to spend the summer with their uncle Ross out in the country. Seeking to form an identity, Elizabeth decides that she and John will go by “Geeder” and “Toeboy” for the summer.
One night, as they camp out in the yard under the stars, they see a mysterious tall woman in white, who they believe is a supernatural “walker,” potentially malevolent if it sees them.
It turns out that the truth is a good bit different. The woman is Zeely Taybor, who works with her father at raising razorback hogs. Her family moved to the area from Canada after her mother died. Despite her impoverished circumstances, Zeely carries herself with a dignity that makes Geeder believe she is an African queen.
When she and Zeely finally do talk, near the end of the book, Zeely shares two stories: one, a mythological origin story for the Watutsi people (her mother’s ancestors), and the other from Zeely’s childhood, when she would swim in a lake alone at night, before encountering a strange old woman.
The stories are puzzling to Geeder at first, because Zeely doesn’t reveal exactly what they mean, or why she told them. Later, after processing everything, Geeder realizes that they are about embracing one’s selfhood rather than trying to be someone else. They are about seeing things differently, and in particular, seeing one’s own dignity and worth. For Elizabeth (as she resumes being), this includes seeing her heritage as an African-American girl as equal to the self-worth that Zeely shows. Because Zeely is a queen in the ways that really matter: not the petty ways of human politics, but in her kindness, gentleness, and her refusal to stoop to coarseness no matter her circumstances.
We have read a number of books by black authors over the years, and have appreciated that many of the newer books aren’t focused just on social issues - racism, prejudice, unjust systems - but simply celebrate the lives of the people in the stories. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for the other kind - we have certainly read those too, and they are important for white kids like mine to read and understand. But I also love books that help us see our commonalities, and books like Zeely do that.
Elizabeth and John are kids just like other kids, with their fears in the dark that they kind of sort of enjoy - that thrill of pushing the limit a bit. Elizabeth is clearly on the cusp of puberty, and not sure how to direct her emotional life as she becomes a woman. All of us have felt that way, honestly. That transition from child to adult is tough. We try on identities as we figure out who we are and who we want to be. My youngest is at that age too, and I hope she found some solidarity in this book.
I definitely want to read the other books in the collection, as I somehow missed Hamilton as a child.
You can peruse the list of books by black authors I have read and reviewed for this blog here.
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