Virginia Hamilton's first book for children, Zeely (1967) tells the story of the summer that a young African American girl, Elizabeth, spends with her brother John at their Uncle Ross's farm. The trip was special because Elizabeth and her brother went alone and because their father had hinted that something was going to happen that Elizabeth must take care of. Elizabeth's unexpected relationship with Zeely, the daughter of Nat Tayber, who rents a small part of Uncle Ross's farm, gives Elizabeth an opportunity to find out what he meant.
On the train, Elizabeth feels that the only way to celebrate the uniqueness of this trip with her brother is for them to change their names; Elizabeth becomes Geeder and John is to answer to Toeboy. This is only the first in a series of stories that Elizabeth creates. Upon arriving at her uncle's farm, Elizabeth renames the nearby town Crystal, and the road leading from the farm to the town Leadback Road. The most significant story that Elizabeth creates, however, surrounds the background of Zeely.
The unique and strikingly regal appearance of Zeely Tayber is enhanced when Elizabeth sees a picture of a Watutsi queen in a magazine and immediately equates Zeely with the woman in the picture. Elizabeth's storytelling increases, and she begins to imagine that she and Zeely are sisters, that she is Zeely's only confidant, and that Zeely eventually makes Elizabeth a queen. Elizabeth's feeling of importance builds as she tells these stories in town to her friends, who take them as the truth. It is only after Zeely meets with Elizabeth and talks about herself through real stories of her own that Elizabeth learns the significance of knowing herself, and of living for herself and not for the stories that she makes up about others.
Zeely originated from an eighteen-page short story that Hamilton had written in college. Only later, after being reminded of its existence by a college friend who was working at a publishing company, did she expand it into a children's book. That the publication of this book coincided with the civil rights and black consciousness movements of the late 1960s further highlights its cultural aspects. Not simply a coming-of-age book, Zeely chronicles the development of a young girl into a young women, and her increasing racial awareness as well. Hamilton's weaving of African American folklore and history into the stories of Zeely and other characters encourages readers to learn and to appreciate themselves and their histories.
Nina Mikkelsen, Virginia Hamilton, 1994.
Related content in Oxford Reference
Virginia Hamilton (1936—2002)