Born in 1935 to Jewish Russian/Polish immigrants living in New York City’s South Bronx, Adoff displayed an early talent for poetry, though first followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Columbia University’s Pharmacy College. He transferred to New York’s City College where earned a bachelor’s degree in history and literature and later pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University, according to his obituary.
He met his future wife, Virginia Hamilton, at a New York City party in 1958. They fell in love and married in 1960 and raised two children, according to his obituary.
Hamilton, who in books, essays and speeches celebrated black life and history, became the nation’s most acclaimed writer for younger readers. She preceded her husband in death in 2002 at the age of 67.
After graduate school, Adoff taught seventh-grade social studies at a Brooklyn yeshiva and then continued substitute teaching while fledging a writing career. Adoff started collecting Black literature in the late 1950s. While teaching, he observed his ethnically diverse students, while exposed to racist textbooks, didn’t have access to books and magazines that accurately reflected their experiences, according to a Publishers Weekly recounting of his life.
Adoff wrote more than 30 books in his career, including Black is Brown is Tan, the first book written and published with an interracial family as the protagonists. He also worked closely with his wife on her manuscripts negotiated all of Hamilton’s contracts, according to his obituary.
Bonnie Verburg, longtime editor for both Adoff and Hamilton, told Publishers Weekly that Adoff’s 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,” Verberg told Publishers Weekly. “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.”
Adoff, too, garnered many literary awards, including a Children’s Book of the year citation for I am the Darker Brother, the American Library Association’s best book for young adult citation award for Slow Dance Heartbreak Blues, best children’s book award, School Library Journal for both It is the Poem Singing into your Eyes and Black is Brown is Tan. In 1988, he won the National Council of Teachers of English award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
As a doting father and grandfather, Adoff attended every soccer and little league game, track meet, rock and roll show, opera performance or anything else involving his children or grandchild, according to his family. He is survived by his two children, Leigh Hamilton of Berlin, Germany and Jaime Adoff of Yellow Springs.
A celebration of Adoff’s life was held Saturday in Yellow Springs.