“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.
This installment brings us to a man whose work sings with music and multiculturalism.
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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See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Arnold Adoff. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.
Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.
I think you may have just introduced me to a new favorite poet I (embarrassingly) have never heard of up until now. I must have “Black is Brown is Tan”…it sings to me even in the mere few pages you’ve presented here.
I’m in awe of how much research, time, effort, and polish goes into each of these NCTE spotlight posts, Renée. Many, many thanks to you and Lee for keeping the work of such wonderful poets fresh in our minds and hearts. I was not very familiar with Arnold Adoff before I came here today, but now, I am inspired to seek out more of his work.
Thoroughly enjoyed hearing more about Arnold and his amazing work. The first book of his I read was Chocolate Dreams. 🙂 Love all the poems Lee shared. Thanks, both of you!
Wow – simply fabulous! Thanks Renee and Lee for this interesting and inspiring presentation! Arnold Adoff is new to me but I plan to find and read him now. Like Michelle I so appreciate all the thought, technical expertise, and time that have gone into this post. Kudos to you both.
I look forward to learning more about this wonderful poet and great man! Thanks so much, Renee and Lee!
Remarkable post, Renee! It makes me want to go out and read every one of his books. Thanks for this great resource.
I’m proud to say that I have that 1968 edition of I AM THE DARKER BROTHER – I bought it while taking a class at UC Berkeley about Race and Society, and I’ve treasured it ever since. Thanks, Renee, for gathering up such a thorough bunch of information about Arnold Adoff for us.
Thanks Renee for shining the spotlight on Arnold Adoff. I must put some of his books on hold at the library ASAP. = )
I remember a FABULOUS author visit by Arnold Adoff years and years ago!
Wow! A powerful poet that blew me away in this post! Thanks Renee and Lee!
I am completely awestruck. I am so blessed that you are so committed to producing such an amazing series. This was deeply moving. The admiration Lee has for Arnold Adoff is contagious. Thanks for all of the hard work you put into this post. Just Wonderful. Thank you. I am so proud.
That was fabulous Renee and Lee. Thank you! I’ve only read one of those books, I shall hunt for more.
I feel as if I’ve just attended a nourishing & challenging poetry workshop through this expansive post Renee.
I feel fortunate to have found Arnold Adoff via LOVE LETTERS (& one of my luvs about that book are Lisa Desimini’s illustrations) . And then I found & gave away the Puffin poetry book, My Black Me. Of all the poets I would like to emulate, he presents that accessible marriage of harsh & soft. “Sprout roses & spit bullets”, his entreaty, is perfect. I had a chance to approach him once at a large literacy event but was too shy. He’s a giant.
Appreciations to you both.
Thanks for this series, Renee and Lee. It’s a treasure!
Renee, Lee, this is marvelous. I found out about Arnold Adoff when I saw a poem of his called “Slow Slide” performed to perfection by Jennifer Hirsch of Poetry Alive during the 2003-2004 season. The words “My Left Arm Reaches” was the refrain. Met him at NCTE in Orlando years later. Couldn’t have been nicer. Thanks again!
Renee, I am a huge fan of Arnold Adoff and his work. Sports Pages is a book I use in the classroom all the time and his collection of chocolate poems — inventive and delicious.
I finagled my way into a reading specialists’ conference once, just to hear him speak and meet one of my poetry idols. Totally worth it!