April 10, 2003
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Jaime Adoff joins the family business


When he was a child growing up in Yellow Springs, Jaime Adoff didn’t know that his mother, renowned children’s book author Virginia Hamilton, was famous. But he did know that, when she vanished into her study each morning, something wonderful happened.
“She went into her office with a cup of coffee and came out later with pages of writing,” he said in an interview Saturday. “It was like magic to me.”
Adoff also heard his dad, Arnold Adoff, recite his poetry out loud and listened as his mom read her stories. And though it took him years to put his own pen to paper, Adoff, 35, is now making up for lost time. In November, Adoff published his first book, The Song Shoots Out of My Mouth, published in November with Dutton Children’s Books, and has already completed two other books that will also be published as soon as the illustrators complete their work.
Last weekend, Adoff returned to Yellow Springs to hang out in his hometown and to sign copies of his book at Glen Garden Gifts.
Adoff said he had a wonderful time. Lots of old friends showed up at his book-signing, as did several of his favorite teachers, such as Bev Price, who taught Adoff to read when he was in the Antioch School, and Shirley Mullins, who introduced him to music. Mullins’s influence was profound, said Adoff, who went on to become a professional musician.
“I caught the music bug from her,” Adoff said. “She was the first person outside of my family who taught me how to be a professional.”
Adoff’s love of music and language come together in his book, which is subtitled “A Celebration of Music,” and illustrated with lively, bright drawings by Martin French. A series of poems, the book explores a child’s love of all forms of music, including classical, jazz and hip-hop, both vocal and instrumental.
In The Song Shoots Out of My Mouth, Adoff writes:
Each word running fast across lips.
A direct line to my hips, twist and shake.
My voice another arm, another leg.
My throat the Cape Canaveral of my soul.
Song shuttle
blasting off
into deep blue
soprano sky.
In a poem about Mozart, Adoff says the great composer’s music explodes into my ears. Makes me drop my chocolate milk all over the cafeteria floor. I clean while the strings sing the melody. Pass it back — the orchestra plays catch.
I feel like an astronaut going to the moon. Just to refuel on my way to Mars. Then — Jupiter Symphony No. 41 — playin’ soccer on the sun, barefoot.
Adoff’s love of language took him by surprise, he said. While he knew he loved hearing his parents read their work when he was a child, he didn’t realize the depth of their influence.
“I soaked it all in,” Adoff said.
Using language to celebrate music seemed an obvious choice for the former professional musician. Growing up in Yellow Springs, Adoff studied piano with Ava English, then violin with Shirley Mullins. He went on to play the trumpet before studying drumming at Central State University. After moving to New York City, he took graduate-level courses at the Manhattan School of Music. Adoff started his own rock band, spending about eight years, he said, “immersed in the music scene” in New York City.
Though he re-corded two CD’s of his own material and performed extensively, Adoff found the life ultimately dissatisfying. While he started out performing out of his “love and joy of music,” he said he became more focused on trying to make it as a rock star, and lost much of his pleasure in his work.
Finally, in 1997–98, Adoff said he took some time out to “search my soul,” seeking more satisfying work. With a vague sense that he wanted to do something positive that involved working with children, Adoff began writing as a form of therapy. Soon, though, he realized the writing process brought him even more joy than he’d found with music.
Adoff laughed as he remembers the night he called his mom to tell her he decided to be a writer.
“I said, ‘Mom, I’ve decided to join the family business,’ and there was this long pause,” he recalled. “ Then she said, ‘What business is that?’ Then another long pause and she said, ‘Oh, you mean you want to write.’ ”
Hamilton, who died last year of breast cancer, was thrilled with his decision, Adoff said, and their relationship became even closer.
“I began picking her brain,” he said. “I saw my mother in a different light. We had hours of conversation about writing, and I’m so glad we had that before she got sick.”
His mother encouraged him to stay true to himself and his own style when editors suggested he copy what others were doing, Adoff said. And his father, who acts as his son’s agent, offers more specific advice.
Like his parents when he was growing up, Adoff now works at home, which he shares with his wife, Mary, a pediatric nurse practitioner, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“It’s great fun,” he said of the writing process. “I love the revision process, shaping something from broad to crisp and polished.”
Adoff also loves the feeling of communicating with children, especially teenagers. When in Ohio last week, Adoff especially enjoyed visiting schools in Millersburg, where he read his new book.
“It’s important to me when I write to get as close as I can to being the kid who’s speaking,” he said, adding that doing so comes easily. “Most of the time, I feel like I’m about 16,” Adoff said. “When I was visiting the schools, I thought, Hey, this is my crowd. It’s not a stretch for me to get inside the head of a third grader or a teenager.”
While in Yellow Springs for the weekend, Adoff marveled at the sign in front of Glen Garden Gifts that proclaimed “Jaime Adoff, Author.”
He shook his head in wonderment, saying: “I never thought I’d see that.” Back in the hometown where he learned to love both language and music, Adoff clearly reveled in walking down Xenia Avenue, saying hello to friends and acquaintences, and he appreciated the good turnout at his booksigning. But something was missing.
“I just wish she knew about it,” Adoff said of his mother. Then he added, “But I think maybe she does.”

—Diane Chiddister