Obituary: Arnold Adoff

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Children’s poet, author, and anthologist Arnold Adoff, widely noted for his inventive poetry style and for depicting African American experiences in his work, died on May 7 at his home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, following a brief illness. He was 85.

Adoff was born July 16, 1935 in New York City and grew up in the South Bronx where his Jewish parents, who immigrated from Russia, had settled. Adoff’s father was a pharmacist whose store was just a block away from the family home in what Adoff described in a Something About the Author interview as “a mixed working-class neighborhood.”

Adoff’s recollections of childhood include a house that was filled with magazines and newspapers, music (from his mother’s violin playing and the radio), and lots of passionate discussions that he characterized as “volatile, emotional, as well as intellectual.” He credits his parents and grandparents for passing on to him the way they “valued of their Jewish heritage and liberal causes, and prized the roles of women in society.”

As a teenager, Adoff began reading widely and started to write poetry. His love for music continued to grow and by age 16, he was sneaking into jazz clubs all over New York City to see such legends as Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker perform.

Following high school Adoff enrolled in the Columbia University School of Pharmacy, with a goal of following in his father’s footsteps. But the program didn’t suit him, and he became so upset that he ran away from home to Chicago. His stay in the Windy City was brief, however, and after he called home, his parents urged him to return, assuring him that they supported his study of anything he wanted.

Back in New York, Adoff followed the emotional pull of poetry and politics and enrolled at City College, where he majored in history and minored in literature, with plans to become a history professor and a poet. While at City College he wrote for the school’s newspaper and literary magazine and served as president of the jazz club. The latter afforded him the opportunity to meet jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, whom Adoff called his “spiritual father.”

Adoff graduated with a B.A. in 1956 and began graduate work in political science at Columbia. According to his SATA biography, Adoff completed all the coursework for a Ph.D. in American history, but never finished his dissertation. He subsequently studied poetry at the New School from 1965–67 with Filipino American poet José Garcia Villa.

During graduate school at Columbia, Adoff had worked as a seventh-grade social studies teacher at a yeshiva in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, a move he said gave him confidence that he could earn a living in the real world. After abandoning his history studies in favor of becoming a writer, he rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and supported himself with a day job substitute teaching while he continued writing poetry and frequenting jazz clubs at night. In this period, he became Mingus’s manager. It was Mingus who introduced Adoff to a young writer and occasional nightclub singer named Virginia Hamilton. The couple married in 1960 and would welcome two children, daughter Leigh and son Jaime. (Hamilton, of course, went on to become one of the most distinguished authors of children’s literature, earning nearly every award and honor in the industry, including the Newbery Medal and a MacArthur Fellowship.)

Adoff had begun collecting Black literature in the late 1950s, and that pursuit dovetailed with his observation that the ethnically diverse students in his classrooms were exposed to racist textbooks and didn’t have access to books and magazines that accurately reflected their experiences. Wanting to address that, he shared his favorite poems and works by Black writers with the kids. Once, Adoff recruited a friend—an editor at Macmillan—to make photocopies of some poems so he could distribute them to his class. The friend was impressed by the selections and suggested Adoff meet with the editor-in-chief about turning them into a book. The result was his first anthology, I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans, published by Macmillan in 1968. Of his passion for curating collections like this one, Adoff told SATA, “I want my anthologies of Black American writing 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. We can go beyond the murders and the muddles of the present.”

In addition to anthologies, Adoff published original poetry, including MA nDA LA, about “the music of the ‘ah’ vowel sound,” illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Harper, 1971), and Black Is Brown Is Tan (Harper, 1973), focused on growing up in an interracial family, which he said was written for his own children and other kids who were living that experience. He often mentioned that his creative process had a musical influence and that individual poems frequently started as a “teasing rhythm or an elusive hint of melody in my ear,” sometimes undergoing 75 drafts before completion. In all, he published more than 30 books for children and young adults. In 1988 he received the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, in recognition of his body of work.

Adoff, Hamilton, and their children lived for many years in Yellow Springs, Hamilton’s hometown, settling there in 1969. In the mid-1980s the couple team-taught courses on writing as distinguished visiting professors at Queens College in New York City, and they lectured at various universities nationwide over the years. Adoff worked closely with Hamilton on her manuscripts and served as her literary agent negotiating book contracts. And both authors mentored numerous writers as they rose in their own careers. Hamilton died in 2002.

“I began writing for kids because I wanted to effect a change in American society,” Adoff told SATA. “By the time we reach adulthood, we are closed and set in our attitudes…. 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 has no clothes. That’s the poet’s job…. I know, too, that I write for children because the child in me is still very much alive.”

Bonnie Verburg, who was the longtime editor of both Adoff and Hamilton, shared this remembrance: “Arnold Adoff was a love letter. His poetry was lighter than the finest French pastry, and at the same time his words could cut into me with a sharpness that drew blood. I have never known a man who loved his wife more than he loved Virginia. I will eternally be thankful for his unwavering commitment to stand up for equal rights, even in the face of impossible odds. He inspired and encouraged generations of writers and enhanced the lives of children ‘and their older allies,’ as he would put it. I am forever in his debt.”

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