Adoff, Arnold 1935-
ADOFF, Arnold 1935-
PERSONAL: Born July 16, 1935, in New York, NY; son of Aaron Jacob (a pharmacist) and Rebecca (Stein) Adoff; married Virginia Hamilton (a writer), March 19, 1960 (died, February 19, 2002); children: Leigh Hamilton (daughter), Jaime Levi (son). Education: City College of New York (now City College of the City University of New York), B.A., 1956; graduate studies at Columbia University, 1956-58; attended New School for Social Research, 1965-67. Politics: "Committed to change for full freedom for all Americans." Religion: "Freethinking pragmatist." Hobbies and other interests: History, music.
ADDRESSES: Home—Yellow Springs, OH. Office— Arnold Adoff Agency, P.O. Box 293, Yellow Springs, OH 45387. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: Poet, writer of fiction and nonfiction, and anthologist. Teacher in New York City public schools, 1957-69; Arnold Adoff Agency, Yellow Springs, OH, literary agent, 1977—. Instructor in federal projects at New York University, Connecticut College, and other institutions; visiting professor, Queens College, 1986-87. Lecturer at colleges throughout the United States; consultant in children's literature, poetry, and creative writing. Member of Yellow Springs planning commission. Military service: Served with New York National Guard.
AWARDS, HONORS: Children's Books of the Year citation, Child Study Association of America, 1968, for I Am the Darker Brother, 1969, for City in AllDirections, and 1986, for Sports Pages; Best Children's Books, School Library Journal, 1971, for It Is the Poem Singing into Your Eyes, and 1973, for Black Is Brown Is Tan; Notable Children's Trade Book citation, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council (NCSS/CBC), 1974, and Children's Choice citation, International Reading Association/Children's Book Council (IRA/CBC), 1985, both for My Black Me: A Beginning Book of Black Poetry; Art Books for Children Award for MA nDA LA, 1975; Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, 1980, 1981, and 1982, all for It Is the Poem Singing into Your Eyes; Jane Addams Children's Book Award special recognition, 1983, for All the Colors of the Race; Parents' Choice Award (picture book), 1988, for Flamboyan; National Council of Teachers of English Award in Excellence in Poetry for Children, 1988; American Library Association (ALA) notable book citation, for Street Music; ALA Best Book for Young Adults citation, for Slow Dance Heartbreak Blues; Blue Ribbon Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, for Love Letters; Children's Book of Distinction award, Riverbank Review, for Love Letters.
POETRY; FOR CHILDREN
MA nDA LA, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
Black Is Brown Is Tan, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Harper (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, 2002.
Make a Circle Keep Us In: Poems for a Good Day, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1975.
Big Sister Tells Me That I'm Black, illustrated by Lorenzo Lynch, Holt (New York, NY), 1976.
Tornado!, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1977.
Under the Early Morning Trees, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.
Where Wild Willie, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.
Eats, illustrated by Susan Russo, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1979.
I Am the Running Girl, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
Friend Dog, illustrated by Troy Howell, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1980.
OUTside/INside Poems, illustrated by John Steptoe, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1981.
Today We Are Brother and Sister, illustrated by Glo Coalson, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1981.
Birds, illustrated by Troy Howell, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1982.
All the Colors of the Race, illustrated by John Steptoe, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1982.
The Cabbages Are Chasing the Rabbits, illustrated by Janet Stevens, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1985.
Sports Pages, illustrated by Steven Kuzma, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1986.
Greens, illustrated by Betsy Lewin, Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.
Flamboyan, illustrated by Karen Barbour, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.
Chocolate Dreams, illustrated by Turi MacCombie, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1988.
Hard to Be Six, illustrated by Cheryl Hanna, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1990.
In for Winter, out for Spring, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1991.
The Return of Rex and Ethel, illustrated by Catherine Deeter, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1993.
Street Music: City Poems, illustrated by Karen Barbour, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Slow Dance Heart Break Blues, illustrated by William Cotton, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1995.
Touch the Poem, illustrated by Bill Creevy, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Love Letters, illustrated by Lisa Desimini, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
The Return of Rex and Ethel, illustrated by Catherine Deeter, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.
Touch the Poem, illustrated by Lisa Desimini, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 2000.
The Basket Counts, illustrated by Michael Weaver, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Daring Dog and Captain Cat, illustrated by Joe Cepada, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans, illustrated by Benny Andrews, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968, revised edition, introduction by Rudine Sims Bishop, foreword by Nikki Giovanni, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
Black on Black: Commentaries by Negro Americans, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968.
City in All Directions: An Anthology of Modern Poems, illustrated by Donald Carrick, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Black Americans, illustrated by Alvin Hollingsworth, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.
Brothers and Sisters: Modern Stories by Black Americans, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.
It Is the Poem Singing into Your Eyes: An Anthology of New Young Poets, Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the Twentieth Century, introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
My Black Me: A Beginning Book of Black Poetry, Dutton (New York, NY), 1974.
Celebrations: A New Anthology of Black American Poetry, Follett (New York, NY), 1977.
Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Jazzicals, a collection of poetry.
SIDELIGHTS: An accomplished poet, biographer, and anthologist as well as a respected educator, Arnold Adoff is recognized as one of the first—and finest—champions of multiculturalism in American juvenile literature. Described by Jeffrey S. Copeland in Speaking of Poets as "a writer on a mission," Adoff, whose works most often reflect the African-American experience, is among the first authors to consistently, accurately, and positively portray black subjects and concerns in a manner considered both specific and universal; several of his books, most notably the anthologies I Am the Darker Brother and City in All Directions, the illustrated biography Malcolm X, and the picture book Black Is Brown Is Tan, are acknowledged as groundbreaking titles in their respective genres. During a career that has spanned over three decades, noted Copeland, Adoff "has been influencing how young readers view such matters as equality of races, sex-role stereotyping, individual rights, and ageism. . . . [He] has spent his writing career expounding the strength of family, both in terms of the individual family structure and the family of humanity." Writing in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Marilyn Kaye stated that a "constant factor in Adoff's work is the imaginative expression of faith in people and their spirit. Each work, in its own way, salutes the human condition and its ability to triumph." New York Times Book Review contributor Ardis Kimzey called Adoff "one of the best anthologists in the world," and concluded, "With his taste and ear, it stands to reason that he should have turned to writing poetry himself, and done it well."
As a poet, Adoff characteristically utilizes free verse, vivid images, and unusual structures and sounds to express warm, affectionate family portraits; the intimate thoughts and feelings of children; and a variety of moods and tones. His poetry is noted for its invention and innovation as well as for its idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, elements Adoff believes have a strong effect on the movement and rhythm of a poem. He seeks to visually represent the meaning of the words in his poetry by including variations of line length, type size, and letter arrangement; he uses punctuation and rhyme sparingly and sometimes incorporates black English into his verse. His collections of original poetry consist of books on a particular subject, such as eating, tornadoes, sports, or birds; poems from the viewpoint of a particular character; and combinations of poetry and poetic prose that often focus on the duality of the fantastic and the realistic; he has also included some autobiographical material in his collections. Praised for the depth and range of subjects of his poetry as well as for its sensitivity, insight, musicality, structure, and control, Adoff is perceived as a poet whose skill with language and unexpected variances of meaning and rhythm help make his works especially distinctive. Writing in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, Myra Cohn Livingston maintained that Adoff "strives to present a poetry of 'shaped speech' that is colloquial, that is relevant, short, and exciting." She claimed that each of Adoff's books "promises and delivers something new, fresh, and challenging. . . . [Always] he fulfills his own code, the 'need of the poet to help mold a complete reality through control of technique and imagination.'"
As an anthologist, Adoff is acknowledged for creating carefully selected poetry and prose collections that feature African-American writers and focus on themes of survival, transcendence, and hope. Directing these books to young adults, Adoff includes works by such writers as Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Nikki Giovanni, as well incorporating entries by talented but lesser-known contributors, many of whose works were unpublished prior to their appearance in Adoff's collections.
Adoff was born in New York City and grew up in a mixed working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx. His father, who operated a pharmacy, immigrated to the United States from a town near the Polish-Russian border. "In our home, as in so many others, the emphasis was on being American with a keen sense of Jewish," Adoff once told CA. Members of the Adoff family, especially the women, were deeply concerned with social justice, and lively discussions were common. "There was a tradition of liberal, freethinking females in the family," he recalled. The Adoff family was well read, and numerous magazines and newspapers could be found around the house, the exception being comics, which Adoff's grandmother strictly forbade as too lowbrow.
Around age ten Adoff attended a neighborhood Zionist school, where he studied the Old Testament, Zionism, and other facets of his Jewish heritage. As a teen he read works by Shakespeare, Balzac, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Maupassant; in addition, he was exposed to the writings of Havelock Ellis and the works of psychologists such as Menninger, Steckel, and Horney, as well as a great deal of poetry by Dylan Thomas, e. e. cummings, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Hayden. Adoff attended high school with an early goal of becoming a doctor, but instead developed an intense interest in jazz, an area in which his family had an influence. At age sixteen he began writing poetry; he also began sneaking into New York City jazz clubs, becoming familiar with such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Jazz demonstrated to Adoff, as he remarked to CA, that "what was called 'American culture' most often did not include black or Latino culture."
Adoff enrolled at the Columbia University School of Pharmacy, but withdrew to major in history and literature at New York's City College. He wrote for the college newspaper and literary magazine and was politically active, participating in protests for civil liberties. At college, Adoff was introduced to writers such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein who were especially gifted with language and wordplay. He was also greatly influenced by jazz artist Charles Mingus, who lectured before the jazz club of which Adoff was president. "Without a doubt, he was the most impressive person I had ever met," Adoff commented to CA. "From then on, I went to see him wherever he played, and we got to know each other. In time, he would become my spiritual father." In later years he became Mingus's manager and maintained "running chronicles of the Village club scene."
Adoff attended graduate school at Columbia University; although he finished the required coursework for a Ph.D. in American history, he left before completing his dissertation. While at graduate school, Adoff began teaching seventh-grade social studies at a yeshiva in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. After leaving college he moved to Greenwich Village and began substitute teaching in New York City public schools; he spent the remainder of his time writing and going to jazz clubs in the Village. Through Mingus, Adoff met his future wife, African-American children's writer Virginia Hamilton, in 1958. The couple were married in 1960 and shortly thereafter they moved to Spain and France to work on writing projects. During their stay in Europe, the civil rights movement was intensifying in the United States and they decided to return. "Virginia is black, our children brown—we felt somehow it would be wrong to stay," Adoff once explained. "Besides, it all seemed very exciting and we didn't want to be removed from the action. So we returned to New York, where we threw ourselves into our work and as much political work as we could handle."
In New York Adoff began teaching students in Harlem and on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In addition, he expanded the collection of black literature he had begun in the late 1950s. Adoff began to realize that there was a paucity of written materials appropriate for use in the classroom that reflected black students' lives. In his preface to the anthology The Poetry of Black America Adoff describes the exchange that resulted: "As a teacher I had students who wanted life in those dusty classrooms. They wanted pictures of themselves inside themselves. . . . I was the dealer. The pusher of poems and stories. Plays and paintings. Jazz and blues. And my students began to push on me. To deal their sounds and write their poems. And I was made to become serious about myself. To get my head together and attempt to go beyond the classrooms and students and schools. To go beyond the racist textbooks and anthologies that were on the shelves and in the bookstores."
Adoff began to assemble some of the poems he had collected and shared with his students. His first anthology, I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans, was published by Macmillan in 1968, launching a number of subsequent anthologies of black poetry and prose. His 1973 anthology, The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the Twentieth Century, was one of the largest anthologies of black poetry ever published in the United States. Adoff told CA that the volume, which contains an introduction by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, "contains 600 poems, although my manuscript consisted of 3.000 poems that richly deserved to be included. The final choices were among the most agonizing selections I have ever had to make."
In an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins in More Books by More People, Adoff commented that his objective in producing black literature anthologies is to portray a truer cultural picture of literary America. "I want . . . to make Black kids strong in their knowledge of themselves and their great literary heritage—give them facts and people and power. I also want these Black books of mine to give knowledge to White kids around the country, so that mutual respect and understanding will come from mutual learning. . . . Children have to understand that the oversimplifications they get in classrooms, along with the token non-White artists represented, are not the true American literature. . . . But for those who want the truth, for themselves and for their students, using an anthology is the first step to discovery. The anthology then leads to individual works of the writers." Regarding his inclusion criteria, Adoff remarked to Top of the News that in all of his books, "the material selected must be the finest in literary terms as well as in content/message/racial vision"; he added, "If I can lay Malcolm and Du Bois on top of Sambo and Remus, will they finally die and disappear?"
Adoff faced another formidable selection task with the anthology It Is the Poem Singing into Your Eyes, for which the editor solicited work from young poets across the country and received over 6,000 submissions. "The tragedy . . . is that I was allowed to publish only one hundred poems," he recalled. "There were many, many, many poems that were absolutely superb. . . . The title of the volume was suggested by one of my young correspondents. I loved her statement 'a poem truly does sing into your eyes and then on into your mind and soul.'" Among the young poets included in this collection was August Wilson, who would later become a Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright. In addition to his poetry anthologies, Adoff has compiled several collections of fiction and commentary by black writers.
While Adoff focused on his compilations, he also continued to write poetry. Shortly after returning from Europe in 1965, he enrolled in a class at New York's New School for Social Research that was taught by Filipino-American poet Jose Garcia Villa. Garcia Villa "became my second spiritual father," Adoff told CA. "He talked about creating a poetry that was as pure as music. . . . His extremism based on an exhaustive knowledge of the art and craft of poetry set him apart." Adoff decided to create poetry in which "form and physical shape . . . should serve to promote its message." In 1971 he published his first book of poetry for children, MA nDA LA. A story poem using only words containing the sound "ah," MA nDA LA relates the cycle of African family life in a small village. Writing in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Marilyn Kaye described Adoff's "sing-song verse" in MA nDA LA as "a simple compilation of sounds which evoke a sense of celebration." As Adoff noted to CA, "Ideally, each poem should be read three times: for meaning; for rhythm; for technical tricks. My poems demand active participation."
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Adoff published several volumes of poetry for young people that display his characteristic use of free verse, vivid sensory images, striking word pictures, and lively rhythms while offering sensitive portrayals of family life and interior emotions. Black Is Brown Is Tan, which is based on the poet's own family, is one of the first few children's books to depict interracial families; according to Kaye, it "extends the focus beyond color to encompass a family's delight in each other." In All the Colors of the Race Adoff explores the emotions of a girl with a black mother and a white father; "contemplative, jubilant, and questioning, the upbeat verses stress the young person's humanity in terms of gifts received from her forebears," wrote Ruth M. Stein in Language Arts. Praising the 2002 edition, which features updated illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully, School Library Journal contributor Dorothy N. Bowen commended Adoff for painting a "picture of an interracial home in which there is fun, security, and plenty of love."
In Where Wild Willie, which Stein called "Adoff's paean to independence" in another review in Language Arts, the poet describes a child who temporarily leaves her family to go on her own adventure of learning. The poem recounts the girl's journey and is interspersed with the encouraging words of her parents. Zena Sutherland wrote in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Where Wild Willie "describes with lilting fluency Willie's rambles and then the voices from home speak for themselves, an antiphonal arrangement in which the two draw closer until Willie comes home." Adoff's favorite book is OUTside/INside Poems, a poem cycle that recreates a day in the life of a small boy and expresses his range of feelings. Adoff called this work "a great vehicle for teaching young readers to write poetry. Also, this is the one that really has the greatest element of reality/fantasy."
Adoff considers Sports Pages, a book of poetry for middle graders, to be "a breakthrough [because I] worked in a longer form of a combination of poetic prose and poetry and dealt with some autobiographical material using individual voice in the midst of organized activity." A reviewer in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books called it "one of his best collections," while a Kirkus reviewer suggested that Sports Pages might "easily lure the adolescent" who will enjoy Adoff's "sensitivity and acuity."
With Flamboyan Adoff again uses poetic prose in a picture-book fantasy about a Puerto Rican girl who longs to fly with the birds circling high above her yard. Called "a magical story of a girl's yearning to be outside her own life" by a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, Flamboyan will "appeal to all who long to go beyond the ordinary." Illustrated by Karen Barbour, the book contains an unusual typographic device, a red leaf that appears in the text to provide directions for reading aloud. Ruth K. MacDonald in School Library Journal called Flamboyan a "dazzling combination of both text and illustration."
Adoff's next book, Chocolate Dreams, collects original poems on one of many readers' favorite subjects: food. Described by Betsy Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books as a "rich confection of wordplay, rhythms, and unexpected twists of rhyme and meaning from a poet in his element," the poems, contended Hearne, reveal Adoff's ability to combine "invention and control, depth and delight."
In 1995 Adoff published Street Music: City Poems, a collection of jazzy poems in free verse that celebrates the vibrancy of city life, and Slow Dance Heart Break Blues, a collection about the thoughts and experiences of adolescence that is intended for readers in their early teens. Slow Dance Heart Break Blues, according to a Kirkus reviewer, "is laden with empathy," while Sharon Korbeck concluded in School Library Journal that the volume contains "a great deal of depth" and challenged readers to question what poetry is and to reexamine "who and where they are in light of today's fast-moving issues and society." Writing in Horn Book, Robert D. Hale stated, "If the word gets out, Slow Dance Heart Break Blues will become a best seller. Arnold Adoff knows what teenagers are thinking and feeling, which is evident in this collection of on-target poems."
In Love Letters, a volume of poetry illustrated by Lisa Desimini, Adoff presents primary graders with twenty valentines written as anonymous notes. Dulcy Brainard in Publishers Weekly claimed that "much of the pleasure" comes from the author's and illustrator's "abilities to evoke not only . . . everyday feelings but the more complicated sense of privacy and mystery they summon." Writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Elizabeth Bush suggested, "When it's got to be sweet, but it can't be saccharine, drop one of these on a desktop or into a booktalk and wait for the sparks to fly."
In February of 2002, Adoff's wife, Virginia, passed away, leaving him alone in the home the couple built on the Hamilton family's land in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He continues to write for young people, seeing a link with his concerns for social justice. "I began writing for kids," Adoff once told CA, "because I wanted to effect a change in American society. I continue in that spirit. By the time we reach adulthood, we are closed and set in our attitudes. The chances of a poet reaching us are very slim. But I can open a child's imagination, develop his appetite for poetry, and most importantly, show him that poetry is a natural part of everyday life. We all need someone to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. That is the poet's job." In an interview with Jeffrey S. Copeland in Speaking of Poets, Adoff added another perspective: "I'm still attempting to influence kids one way or another, whether it is the way they view the color of skin or reality and fantasy. I hope always to be considered perhaps controversial, perhaps dangerous, to the status quo. . . . It is a struggle to create something you hope is art. I work long and hard at my craft. I like to feel I have good instincts when it comes to language. All in all, I am very proud of what I've done."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Adoff, Arnold, The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the Twentieth Century, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 7, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Copeland, Jeffrey S., Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults, National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, More Books by More People: Interviews with Sixty-five Authors of Books for Children, Citation Press, 1974.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Twentieth Century Young-Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 4-5.
Booklist, January 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Love Letters, p. 863; February 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by African Americans, p. 1013; February 1, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of The Basket Counts, p. 1017; February 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Malcolm X, p. 1103; March 15, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Touch the Poem, p. 1378; October 1, 2001, Annie Ayres, review of Daring Dog and Captain Cat, p. 322; April 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Black Is Brown Is Tan, p. 76.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1979, p. 109; June, 1986, p. 181; November, 1989, p. 49; March, 1997, p. 239.
Horn Book, November-December, 1995, p. 770.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1986, p. 721; July 1, 1995, p. 942.
Language Arts, September, 1979, pp. 690-691; April, 1983, pp. 483-484.
New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1982, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 1988, p. 88; December 2, 1997; January 10, 2000, review of The Basket Counts, p. 68; April 17, 2000, review of Touch the Poem, p. 80; May 15, 2000, review of The Return of Max and Ethel, p. 118; September 24, 2001, review of Daring Dog and Captain Cat, p. 93.
Reading Teacher, May, 1998, review of Love Letters, p. 684.
School Library Journal, October, 1988, p. 114; September, 1995, p. 221; March, 1997, Carolyn Angus, review of Love Letters, p. 195; May, 1997, Carrie Scadle, review of I Am the Darker Brother p. 141; February, 2000, Nina Linsdsay, review of The Basket Counts, p. 128; June, 2000, Margaret Bush, review of The Return of Max and Ethel, p. 100; September 2001, Nina Lindsay, review of Daring Dog and Captain Cat, p. 182; July, 2002, Dorothy N. Bowen, review of Black Is Brown Is Tan, p. 76.
Top of the News, January, 1972, pp. 153-55.*