Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Arnold Adoff, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“I really want a poem to sprout roses
and spit bullets.“
Welcome to the eighth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.
In 1988, Arnold Adoff became the eighth recipient of the NCTE award. Adoff’s civil rights activism and years of teaching and counseling students in Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City fueled his art and his desire to “create real kids and say real things for real readers.” Thus were the beginnings of one of America’s first champions of multiculturalism in literature for young people.
Published in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement, Adoff’s first anthology, I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans, celebrated the African-American culture and paved the way for countless similar anthologies. (Click graphics to enlarge and read.)
Adoff has gone on to write over 40 books for children that span poetry, picture books, anthologies, and nonfiction.
As Lee mentions in the video, Adoff’s family — his two children and wife, notable children’s writer Virginia Hamilton — also played a critical role in Adoff’s work, which is particularly reflected in his 1973 picture book poem Black is brown is tan. Lee shares more of this poem in the video and notes that this book was one of the first for young readers to deal with interracial marriage.
What has struck me most in my reading of Adoff’s work is how true he is to his desire to “create real kids and say real things for real readers.” Every poem I’ve read is just that — authentic, accessible, and able to evoke different moods and elicit different emotions with every turn of the page. From playing basketball …
… to passing notes in class …
… the narrators in these poems are recognizable, relatable, and bursting with curiosity and life.
These samples also show Adoff’s unconventional style, the way he plays with white space and letter spacing. As the poet himself explains, “Writing a poem is making music with words and space. I have incorporated the concept of time in my writing by the use of space. The millesecond that it takes the eyes to move forward is an aspect of time. Time is the music or the rhythmic force and that, I think, is a step forward in the medium.” (From the author’s website)
Another major influence on Adoff’s work is music, a theme explored in much of his work but perhaps never so beautifully — and sometimes painfully — as in his 2011 collection, Roots and Blues: A Celebration. A series of poems and poetic prose pieces, this book chronicles the history and culture of blues music from its horrific beginnings in slavery …
to the joyous celebration of a musical tradition passed down from generation to generation …
And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention how fortunate Adoff has been in his illustrators. The paintings and illustrations in all these spreads are simply breathtaking.
Lee’s reflections on Arnold Adoff reveal a profoundly intelligent, socially conscious, and caring man who is passionate about celebrating and giving a voice to “all the colors of the race.”
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on ARNOLD ADOFF
In His Own Words: Arnold Adoff on
Writing Poetry for Children
“I just try to create real kids and say real things for real readers.”
“I began writing for kids 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 more 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’s the poet’s job.”
“I will always try to turn sights and sounds into words. I will always try to shape words into my singing poems.”
Advice to Poets
“You must learn to control yourself as a conscious individual, your craft, work habits, self-discipline, the very form of the poem or prose piece. You must believe that you have the power. Always write and study; write and study with others and alone. The work of other writers that is relevant to you. Don’t beat your head against doors. Use your fists.”
“There are as many definitions of poetry as there are different kinds of poetry, because a fine poem combines the elements of measuring music, with a form like a living frame that holds it all together. My personal preference is that music first must sing out to me from the words. How does it sing sound? Then how does it look? I really want a poem to sprout roses and spit bullets. This is an ideal combination, and it is a tough tightrope that takes a kind of control that comes only with years and years of work.”
More about Arnold Adoff
Dates: b. 1935 in Bronx, NY
Education: City College of New York, BA in literature and history; Columbia University; New School for Social Research
Occupation: Social studies teacher, activist, poet
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 1988; various book awards
Known for: Multiculturalism and “making music with words and space” (author’s own words)
First book published: I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans (Macmillan, 1968)
- Arnold Adoff’s website
- Biography and selected bibliography at The Ohio Reading Road Trip
- Profile of Adoff for NCTE, by Mary Lou White
Interviews with Arnold Adoff:
- Poetry at Play (PDF), interview by Steven Withrow
- The Brown Bookshelf, interview by Alice Faye Duncan
“Writing a poem is making music with words and space.”
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts)
(Criteria for award)
2015 – Marilyn Singer
2013 – Joyce Sidman
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins
2006 – Nikki Grimes
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman
2000 – X.J. Kennedy
1997 – Eloise Greenfield
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen
1991 – Valerie Worth
1988 – Arnold Adoff
1985 – Lilian Moore | See Lilian’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1982 – John Ciardi | See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam | See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin | See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher | See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord | See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
NEXT IN THE SERIES: VALERIE WORTH
Michelle has the roundup at Today’s Little Ditty!
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All poems © Arnold Adoff. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.
Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.