Justice and Her Brothers, by Virginia Hamilton

This review is my contribution to the More Diverse Universe blog fest, a week of bloggers highlighting speculative fiction books by and about people of color.

I've chosen to fill in a gap in my own reading, by taking a look at Justice and Her Brothers, by Virginia Hamilton (Greenwillow Books, 1978).

This is a book that's floated around on the edges of my book browsing consciousness for years...but the cover I would have seen in the library as a child (shown here) looks like one of those regular girl growing up and learning life lessons kind of stories, and it didn't appeal.  But I think I may have tried it at one point.  I can imagine having tried it, excepting fantasy or science fiction, (because that's what you find out it is when you read the jacket flap--children with "supersensory powers"), but never making it past the first slow chapters of very realistic hot, sticky summer, and the inescapable fact that there are indeed, as the title suggests, older brothers involved.  I am a sister kind of person myself, and although Rush and Oliver Melendy would be lovely brothers, Justice is not that lucky--her older twin brothers have, um, issues.

So in short, you would never know from the first few chapters, or from the hardback cover,  that one of Justice's twin brothers is a deeply disturbed, bullying megalomaniac psychic who has been systematically oppressing his twin and who is about to start work on Justice.   It takes quite a while to realize, buried as it is in the hot summer of bike riding and snake hunting, that Justice has psychic powers too!  Really powerful ones.  Justice, it turns out, is not having an ordinary summer...instead, she is one of two kids being trained in to use their mental powers by a teacher who erases her memories of each session.

It makes for slightly odd reading.  There one is, with skinned knees and mosquito bites, having an ordinary few pages of deep immersion into the ordinary life of a little sister, and then, like a spouting whale, comes a psychic bit and they come faster and faster until, in the last ten pages, there's a confrontation between Justice and her brother,  but then the three siblings plus Justice's classmate in phsycic home school form a unit of phsycic power bonding destined to do great things in the future because they are the first of a new class of mutant humans (or something) and they kind of travel through time and space to see a future that they are going to have to save.   Her bad brother isn't all that sorry, or willing to cooperate, but he has some magical phsycic healing thing happen, and it's implied that at least he's not going to be a total psychopath anymore.  And so it ends, just as they are all gathered together and ready to adventure.  (I had some issues with the pacing of this book).

And that concludes the summary portion of this post.

It was, as my summary suggests, a mix I found a tad diconcerting.  So though I found it a fascinating, and gripping, read, it wasn't a book that entirely worked for me as a reader.  Justice and her Brothers reads very much as a prologue to future adventures, which, in fact, it is.  In the subsequent books of the series, Dustland (1980), and The Gathering (1981), the science fiction is front and center, and I'm hoping I'll find those more completely satisfying.

Justice and her Brothers is a groundbreaking book.  It is the first English language speculative fiction novel, as far as I know, that was written for children with a black girl as its protagonist.   It's clear from the hardback cover that Justice and her brothers are black kids.  However, Hamilton never makes a point of underlining it; she just drops in small descriptors here and there that do not compare skin color to any sort of food or beverage (as is so often the case in today's books).  Justice's family is an ordinary family, with caring parents, without poverty, racism, the legacy of slavery etc. driving any part of the story.  Instead, what you get is sci fi mixed with realistic fiction, starring a girl who is black.

I wish it had been followed by a slew of other multiculural science ficiton and fantasy books for kids, but the ground that Hamilton broke here was left pretty much unplanted.  Here's an article that Yolanda Hood wrote that addresses this--"Rac(e)ing into the Future: Looking at Race in Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels for Young Adults by Black Authors" (The Alan Review, 36(3), 2009).  (Thanks, Ebony of the Child_Lit List, for the link!)

Secondly, I have a feeling (that doesn't have enough research and thought behind it to count as a real argument) that this is also ground breaking in its combination of a very real, very richly described setting with fantastic elements.  Just as Alan Garner did with Elidor in 1965 (a fantasy in which the grit and rubble of the real world keep the fantasy from becoming an escapist journey to a magical realm), Justice's story in this first book is firmly anchored in her place in real life.   It, too, does not offer a fanciful other world into which young readers can escape.  But again, I don't think that writers of the 1980s, or even the 1990s, took this approach to speculative fiction for kids and ran with it.   It's not until recently that books books like Ingrid Law's Savvy (2008) start turning up that do something similar.  (Please let me know if you think I'm wrong about this!)

Finally, here are more covers for Justice and Her Brothers, some that emphasize the sci fi, and some that don't. (And they are all in an aesthetically unpleasing line on the left and in different sizes cause the new blogger stinks and I don't have a decent photo editing program here at home.  It hurts).

My own favorite is the Leo and Diane Dillon cover--the one with the tree. That version of the book is clearly being marketed as speculative fiction (it has the imprint "Flare Fantasy" on the cover). The snake cover is both icky, deceptive, and disturbing. The desert cover is wrong (they don't go to a desert in this first book). And the Column of Light cover is too far tilted toward science fiction.


  1. I haven't read these books by Virginia Hamilton yet. She does have a different kind of style in many of her books. I enjoyed her 'Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush.'

    I met Virginia Hamilton several times. She lived in the same area that I do and often did book signings or attended local book conferences. Nice lady; it was very sad when she passed on in 2002.

    It's a shame. It seems like not many people here in the area where I live remember her. She did win the Hans Christian Andersen Medal which is like the Nobel Prize for children's literature but not much is done here to remember her. There's a yearly conference in her honor up at Kent State but not much here.

    Her husband is a writer also. He has a fun book of poetry about chocolate.


  2. Hmmm...

    I want to read books I have a half chance of liking, and unfortunately I think the psychopathic tendencies of the one brother would ruin this one for me (it's a thing I have, after working for a genuinely crazy person). BUT. I'm glad to know about more vintage middle grade sci-fi - especially featuring PoC.

    Great review!

  3. I read The House of Dies Drear for school and picked up a sequel on my own, but never read anything else by Virginia Hamilton. I do remember her being great for setting.

    But this sounds like a good one to read, if only for the historical value. I'm interested in what you'll say about the sequels.

  4. Oh...wow. This book sounds like a completely surreal, bizarre episode. I'm glad that the adventures continue, but I can't like the pacing description myself, either.

    It always amazes me what kidlit and SFF writers got away with in the seventies and early eighties!

    Having only read Hamilton's realistic fiction, this actually seems like a fun departure; I was spooked by the worlds she inhabited in her realistic fiction, and I think I'd rather be scared by this!

  5. Yeah, I can't exactly recommend this to anyone for sheer reading pleasure...though it has its moments. And of course different people in different modes read the same book differently....I would truly love to encounter someone who read this a child right when it was first publish--did the fantastical strangeness knock their socks off? Or was it just weird?

  6. Ummm... maybe I'm a bad person, but I weeded this several years ago because no one would check it out. We're so close to Yellow Springs that I feel like I should keep her work, but it is rather dated.

    1. Well, I didn't leap to push at my own kids....so I don't blame you!

  7. I have read M.C. Higgens and Hamilton's folktale collections but had no idea she had written this trilogy. They are now on my list of must-reads.

  8. This book sounds really strange. Now that I've read your review, I think I'll give it a try. I think all the covers are ugly. Ugh.

  9. You didn't have to jump right into the story back then, I guess, and you could surprise the reader with what the book was like. Now the jacket copy gives away most every surprise the author might have wanted to spring.
    I thought your review was very well balanced. I might have tried this one until you said it was the first in a trio of books.

  10. I'm dying of curiosity now and I might have to try it. But what I really want to say is what a crazy line up of covers! Especially for a kids book. It's amazing what how different are the books I imagine for each of those covers!

  11. Wow, I can see why you found this book a bit disconcerting - I feel that just from your review! But this was a very thoughtful review, and it definitely put Virginia Hamilton on my radar. Thanks for that :-)


Free Blog Counter

Button styles