Born on October 13, 1902 in Louisiana, Arna Bontemps grew up and was educated in California. Upon graduating from college he accepted a teaching position in New York City, where he became friends with several other writers and educators, including Langston Hughes.
Bontemps would become, along with Hughes, one of the influential artists of the Harlem Renaissance who would expand the presence of African American writers in children’s literature. From 1932 until his death in 1973, Bontemps was one of the most prolific African American children’s authors, publishing contemporary, historical, and fantasy fiction as well as picture books, biographies, tall tales, and a poetry anthology. His 1948 nonfiction book, The Story of the Negro, won a Newbery Honor.
Bontemps’ first book for children, Popo and Fifina, was a collaboration with Hughes, and was illustrated by E. Simms Campbell, an African American artist. Upon the publication of Bontremps’ 1937 novel, Sad-Faced Boy, Bontemps wrote to Hughes that he believed he’d written the “first Harlem story for children.”
In 1941 Bontemps published Golden Slippers, the first comprehensive anthology of poetry for children featuring Black poets. His 1951 novel Chariot in the Sky is a fictionalized story of the first Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced Negro spirituals to the concert stage. At the time he wrote the novel, Bontemps was a librarian at Fisk University.
Bontemps also wrote poetry and fiction for adults.
His family’s old Louisiana home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.
Arna Bontremps died from a heart attack on June 4, 1973.