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American poet and editor Arnold Adoff has written numerous collections of poetry for children that celebrate a sense of family, diversity, and the importance of children’s imagination. His poems range in tone and mood from the festive to the meditative, with a common element of a sense of gentle warmth. Adoff also published at least one prose work, a biography of Malcolm X entitled Malcolm X (1970), intended for a younger audience. In addition to his own writing, Adoff compiled a number of highly regarded anthologies of African-American authors.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Love of Music
Adoff was born in 1935 in the East Bronx section of New York City to Aaron Jacob and Rebecca (Stein) Adoff. His parents were Russian jewish immigrants, and his father worked as a pharmacist. Raised in multi-racial South Bronx, Adoff’s parents instilled in him a respect for his Jewish heritage as well as a deep concern for social justice. His home life was full of heated discussion about current issues. Music was an important part of his family life. His mother and aunt both performed and music was often played on the radio. Books and being well read were also encouraged. By his teen years, Adoff was a confirmed jazz fan and began writing poetry, but he planned on becoming a doctor.
While attending Columbia University, Adoff realized that he did not want a medical career. He transferred to the City College of New York, majored in history and literature, and graduated in 1956. Adoff continued his education with graduate studies in American history at Columbia University, which he attended from 1956 to 1958, and later the New School for Social Research, from 1965 to 1967. During the 1950s, Adoff became active in the increasingly tumultuous Civil Rights Movement as his parents were before him. By the 1950s, African Americans in the United States were calling for an end to legal segregation, especially in the South where many blacks were denied basic civil rights and faced daily reminders of their lesser status. Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s worked to change this situation through civil disobedience as well as legal action. Such laws as the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s led to changes, though it took decades for changes to be fully implemented.
Mingus Manager and Teacher
In the late 1950s, Adoff was employed as the manager of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus while working as a teacher in New York City, first in a yeshiva in Brooklyn then as a substitute teacher in public schools. Through Mingus, Adoff met Virginia Hamilton, an African-American writer in 1958. The couple married in 1960, and later had two children, Leigh and Jaime Levi. At the time, interracial marriage was uncommon and, in fact, illegal in a number of states in the United States. Such anti-miscegenation laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967. At the beginning of the marriage between Adoff and Hamilton, they lived in Spain and France, though they returned to the United States to continue their activities in the Civil Rights Movement. Adoff continued his career as an educator upon his return. He taught in public schools in Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City through 1969. Most of his students were African Americans, yet there was little literature by African Americans available in schools.
To benefit his students, he collected the works of African American poets to use in the classroom, including works that were uplifting and contained themes of hope, survival, and triumph. By the late 1960s, he was compiling and editing anthologies of such poets beginning with I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans (1968). Over the years, Adoff published at least eight more anthologies, which included poetry, fiction, and commentaries of black writers.
Launched Writing Career
Adoff published his first original book in 1970, an illustrated biography of Malcolm X entitled Malcolm X. Adoffs book is a forthright account of the major events of the civil rights leaders’ life and overviews his mission. Still a jazz fan and inspired by the poets he anthologized, Adoff began publishing his own original poetry in the early 1970s. His poetry featured lively rhythms, creating what he dubbed ”singing poems.” Adoffs first poetry collection was MA nDA LA (1971), which only uses words that contain the sound ”ah.”
After this point, Adoff regularly published poetry collections for children focusing on varying themes. In collections like Black Is Brown Is Tan (1973) and All the Colors of the Race (1982), he drew on his own experiences as the father of mixed-race children to write about the lives of children from mixed-race marriages. Black Is Brown Is Tan was one of the first children’s books to touch on this subject. Family is also at the center of collections like Big Sister Tells Me That I’m Black (1976), which features a small boy who offers a rousing cheer for himself and all who are like him.
Became Literary Agent
After spending several years focusing exclusively on writing, Adoff moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he developed a secondary career as a literary agent with the founding of the Arnold Adoff Agency. He also continued to write his own poetry for children. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Adoffs poetry for children expanded its thematic concerns. The 1979 collection Eats celebrates good food and the joys of eating. In The Cabbages Are Chasing the Rabbits (1985), Adoff energetically looks at cabbages who turn the tables on the rabbits who have been nibbling on them. The result is a wild and crazy pursuit. The thirty-seven poems that make up Sports Pages (1986) explore the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat for young athletes in lyrical blank verse.
Though Adoff continued to make his primary home in Ohio, he returned to New York City on occasion. From 1986 to 1987, he served as a visiting professor at Queens College in Flushing. The poetry collections he published in the late 1980s continued to reflect a variety of themes and ideas. In Greens (1988), Adoff offers imaginative observations on things that are green, from grass hoppers to pea soup. In contrast, Elamboyan (1988) is a rhythmic melange of poetry and prose that describes the day and dreams of a young Puerto Rican girl whose hair is the color of the Flamboyan tree blossoms.
Continued Literary Output
Adoff continued to publish innovative collections in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1995, he published Street Music: City Poems, a collection of jazzy poems in free verse that celebrate the vibrancy of city life. That same year, he put out Slow Dance Heart Break Blues, a collection about the thoughts and experiences of adolescence intended for readers in their early teens. Still writing for younger readers as well, he published valentines for elementary-aged students in Love Letters (1997). Again targeting young readers, Daring Dog and Captain Cat (2001) explores two pets who become superheroes when their owners are asleep.
Adoff received numerous accolades over the course of his career including the 1988 National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. His wife, Virginia Hamilton, also became a highly regarded children’s author in her own right. After she died of cancer in 2002, Adoff continued to write and read his poetry while teaching poetry and creative writing as a lecturer and instructor at various colleges throughout the country. Adoff continues to live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he still operates his literary agency.
Works in Literary Context
As an author, Adoff was greatly influenced by his own lifelong love of jazz as well as the many African American authors he included in the anthologies he edited. He also found inspiration in William Shakespeare, John Stein beck, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Jose Garcia Villa. In his own poetry, Adoff uses free verse, vivid images, and unusual structures and sounds to create warm, affectionate family portraits. His poetry also includes the intimate thoughts and feelings of children, and he employs a variety of moods and tones. His poetry is noted for its invention and innovation.
“Shaped Speech” Poetry
Adoff favors what he calls the ”Shaped Speech” style of poetry. He believes that the way the words are arranged on the page contributes to the poem’s meaning. His poetry also features an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, elements the poet believes have a strong effect on the movement and rhythm of these poems. Adoff seeks to visually represent the meaning of the words of his poetry by including variations of line length, type size, and letter arrangement. In such shaped speech poems, Adoff uses punctuation and rhyme sparingly, and the words are often run together or broken up to add to the dramatic effect. Such poems can be found in Daring Dog and Captain Cat.
The rhythms of jazz influence Adoff’s use of lively rhythms in his original poetry. His so-called ”singing poems” reflect this sense of musicality. This quality is best appreciated when Adoff’s poems are read aloud. Unusual word, phrase, and sentence configurations, which may appear arbitrary on the page, take on a rhythmic logic when spoken. For example, in MA nDA La, a cycle of African family life in a small village, this story poem uses sounds which when spoken aloud evoke a sense of celebration.
Family and Diversity
As the editor of a number of anthologies of African-American writers and the father of mixed race children, Adoff often celebrates diversity and family with affection in his poetry. This tenderness is most clearly evident in his affectionate family portraits. For example, Black Is Brown Is Tan describes the everyday experiences of an interracial family. The collection begins by focusing on the wide spectrum of colors apparent in family members, then expresses delight in every hue, and concludes by focusing beyond color to encompass a family’s delight in each other.
Other poetry collections include this theme. The interrelated poems in All the Colors of the Race center on an individual, interracial child’s thoughts as she explores her sense of identity through her family’s back ground. The poems contain a variety of emotions as the young girl expresses pride in her varied ancestry and a sense of affiliation with all the colors, religions, and cultures that have contributed to her unique self. She is also aware of potential prejudice as she goes on a family outing, but enjoys the outing nonetheless.
Works in Critical Context
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 by critics as a poet whose skill with language and unexpected variances of meaning and rhythm help make his works especially distinctive. Adoffis also recognized as one of the first and finest champions of multiculturalism in American juvenile literature. Several of his books—most notably the anthologies I Am the Darker Brother (1968) and City in All Directions: An Anthology of Modern Poems (1969), the biography Malcolm X, and the original poetry collection Black Is Brown Is Tan—are acknowledged as groundbreaking titles in their respective genres. Critics have lauded Adoff’s work for its constant, imaginative expression of faith in people and their spirit, noting that each poem, in its own way, salutes the human condition and its ability to triumph.
Black Is Brown Is Tan
Black Is Brown Is Tan al and-mark collection of original poetry, was widely praised when it was originally published. Writing in the School Library Journal, Marilyn Singer comments, “Black Is Brown Is Tan is warm is love is a beautiful picture of a family.” Singer also notes that ”This book is a first in that it is about an interracial family,” she concludes that ”more important, however, is that it is an artistic achievement. Arnold Adoff’s spare free verse combines familiar images in a startling original way.” Another critic, Anne Wheeler notes, in Children’s Book Review Service, ”it deals fairly with the subject [interracial families] and serves as an important beginning in the field of easy books for children about different kinds of families.” Black Is Brown Is Tan was published again in 2002 with new illustrations, and remained a critical favorite with Dorothy N. Bowen in the School Library Journal calling it ”A beautiful picture of an interracial home in which there is fun, security, and plenty of love.”
Daring Dog and Captain Cat
Adoff’s Daring Dog and Captain Cat was also highly praised. The Publishers Weekly reviewer noted ”Free verse, frozen into solid blocks of text, enriches this story of double lives.” The review concludes, ”Youngsters will appreciate the covert proceedings: while the images tell a breezy tale of carousing, the experimental poetry implies that ordinary pets harbor hidden personas.” Similarly, Nina Lindsay in School Library Journal praised, Adoff’s free verse dashes and leaps across the page and tongue, much like animals chasing shadows through a house at night.”
- Copeland, Jeffrey S. Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
- Adoff, Arnold. Politics, Poetry, and Teaching Children: A Personal Journey.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 10 (1986): 9-14.
- Bowen, Dorothy N. Review of Black Is Brown Is Tan. School Library Journal (July 2002): 76.
- Lindsay, Nina. Review of Daring Dog and Captain Cat. School Library Journal (September 2001): 182.
- Singer, Marilyn. Review of Black Is Brown Is Tan. School Library Journal (September 1973): 54.
- Thomas, Joseph T., Jr. ”Mel Glenn and Arnold Adoff: The Poetics of Power in the Adolescent Voice-Lyric.” Style (Fall 2001): 486.
- Wheeler, Anne. Review of Black Is Brown Is Tan. Children’s Book Review Service (October 1973): 9.
- Adoff, Arnold. Arnold Adoff. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from http://www.arnoldadoff.com.
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