Arnold Adoff started writing when he was eleven years old-when he discovered that "girls and poetry were different from boys and prose." This was not the limit of his inspiration, however. Born in a Russian immigrant family and raised in New York City's East Bronx, he read "everything in house" to satiate his curiosity. Later, he would carry stacks of books home from Bronx libraries. In his world, "books and food, recipes and political opinions, Jewish poetry and whether the dumplings would float on top of the soup" were all worthy topics for literature.
After graduating from New York's City College with degrees in history and government, Adoff went on to Columbia University and then the New School for Social Research. He stayed in New York for twelve years afterward, teaching and counseling public school students in Harlem and the Upper West Side. His experience with young adults gave him a simplified outlook for writing to the audience. "I just try to create real kids and say real things for real readers."
This focus, combined with his civil rights activism in college, flesh out the story of America's first champion of multiculturalism in youth literature. I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans was Adoff's first anthology, published in 1968, in the middle of the civil rights movement. Adoff's artistic life grew as he met and married Virginia Hamilton, another children's writer, and managed jazz musician Charles Mingus. Long nights in jazz clubs gave him inspiration for his particular brand of "singing poetry": "Many times you are hearing the same song played over and over again…. After a while, you go beyond the notes into the spaces between the notes."
Adoff's studies in history encouraged him to continue his work in anthologies, and he published three more before 1971. That year he published his first book of poems, MA nDA LA, moved to fruition by his daughter's readings in school. Two years later, Adoff created the first interracial family in children's books in Black is Brown is Tan. Living in Yellow Springs, Ohio with Hamilton and children, Leigh and Jaime, he began a celebrated career as poet and author for young people.
Although now a full-time writer, Adoff continues to work with students, lecturing and conducting workshops across the country. He has published over thirty books in thirty years; in addition to many other awards, in 1988 he was awarded the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Adoff's style of sound-poetry speaks, or sings, to readers in alliteration, repetition, and arrangement; his poems "live" on the page, and change with each reading. They are a perfect match for his desired audience, and reflect why he writes for children. "I began writing for kids because I wanted to effect a change in American society…. By the time we reach adulthood, we are closed and set in our attitudes…. We all need someone to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. That's the poet's job."
In April, 2004 at the annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University, Arnold Adoff will be awarded 2004 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. The Advisory Board of the Conference is honoring Adoff for "the integrity of his artistic vision, his contribution to the field of multicultural literature by bringing attention to the voice of African American poets, his infectious passion for and love of poetry, and his untiring support of new talent in the field of children's and young adult literature."