Study Guide

The People Could Fly

By Virginia Hamilton

The People Could Fly Introduction

Here at Shmoop, we stay fly 'til we die.

How do we do it? By reading fine flight-related literature, of course, like "The People Could Fly." No, this short story's nothing like SkyMall. Instead, this is a traditional African-American folktale all about being free.

Although this tale has been told by countless people over the years, the version we're talking about was written by Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton is one of the all-star children's authors, having won prestigious prizes like the Hans Christian Andersen Award and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1992 and 1995, respectively. Although she's written many straight-up fictional works, Hamilton also dedicated her career to preserving and retelling traditional folk tales like "The People Could Fly."

"The People Could Fly" has a simple premise: Some of the enslaved people brought to America secretly have the power of flight. Although they endure untold suffering at the hands of cruel men, this power always remains dormant, but ready to explode at a moment's notice. All they need is to hear the magic words…

In the end, the story is a powerful reminder of the value of freedom. Like most folk tales, "The People Could Fly" serves as a way for a community to express itself, to document its struggles, and to build toward the future. That's a tall order, but "The People Could Fly" not only meets it, you might even say it soars beyond it.

What is The People Could Fly About and Why Should I Care?

Are you a comic book fanatic? Obsessed with hip-hop? Do you spend every afternoon (and evening) reading Tumblr fan fiction about your favorite television shows?

Believe it or not, answering yes to any of those questions means that you're a fan of folklore.

Basically, any piece of art that's the result of a bunch of people sharing the same idea is a form of folk art. Comic books are folklore—after all, Superman is one character that has been written about by countless people since he was first thought up in 1933. And you know how every wannabe-rapper with a mixtape spits a verse over "A Milli"? They're just contributing to the age-old tradition of folk musicians building on each other's work.

At risk of blowing your mind, in a sense, "The People Could Fly" is a folktale about folktales. It's about the idea that a miraculous event can inspire others to keep hope alive, and it's about realizing the potential that has always been inside, hidden in plain sight. At first glance, it might not seem as interesting to you as Batman's latest exploits or steamy Twilight fan-fics, but give it time and you might learn a thing or two. After all, to really appreciate modern-day folklore, it's good to dive into the past for a bit.

The People Could Fly Resources


Virginia Hamilton
This website details the life and accomplishments of the late, great Virginia Hamilton.

The American Folklore Society
Want to learn more about the rich history of American folklore? Get down with your nerdy self.


All Things Hamilton
In this chat, Hamilton discusses her approach to writing, her reading habits, her reasons for getting into children's literature, and much more.

Do Folktales Evolve Like Biological Species?
This article from The Atlantic suggests that storytelling and biological evolution are similar processes. It's pretty interesting stuff, we think.


Jos Duncan's Version of "The People Could Fly"
This slightly different version of the story is quite compelling. Each telling is a unique snowflake.

Hello, Hamilton
Want to get more insight into Hamilton's head? Get ready, because we've just booked you a one-way ticket.


An Interview with the Illustrators
This is a great chat with Leo and Dianne Dillon, who are responsible for the awesome illustrations in our edition of "The People Could Fly."


"The People Could Fly" Cover
Look at the soar.

A Person Flying
Want to know what comes up when you do a Google search for flying people? Click on through.