Throwback Thursday: Charles R. Smith, Jr.

August 24, 2017

Charles R. Smith, Jr.

“This was my first book and it came about by accident,” says Charles R. Smith, Jr. regarding his first book for children, Rimshots: Basketball Pix, Rolls and Rhythms (Dutton, 1999).   In the years that have followed this work of happenstance, Smith has written, or photo-illustrated (or both!) more than 20 titles for young readers, including: Hoop Kings and Hoop Queens; Brown Sugar Babies; Loki and Alex; I Am America; Dance With Me; The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth; and My People (Ginee Seo, 2009), recent winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King Book Award for Illustration.

Smith, the husband and father of two, is a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography, and a California native who currently resides in Poughkeepsie, New York. Prior to his career in children’s literature, he worked as a freelance photographer doing magazine shoots, novel covers and even projects for a cruise line. Smith is also an ardent sports fan—with a particular passion for the game of basketball.

Over the past decade, Smith has published an array of books for children ages pre-K through young adult, with some of the most highly esteemed publishing houses in the business:  Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, Scholastic, Candlewick, and Ginee Seo/Atheneum. Still, of the project that jumpstarted his career in children’s literature, Smith says, “If there was no Rimshots, there are no other books.” On behalf of the kidlit community, thank goodness there was a Rimshots!

On this final day of our 28 Days Later campaign, we present our final Spotlight feature: Mr. Charles R. Smith, Jr.

 

BBS:    Charles, welcome to The Brown Bookshelf…and congratulations on your CSK win!

CRS:    Thanks for featuring me.

BBS:    Where were you when you found out the news?

CRS:    I was actually eating breakfast and had my son grab my cellphone off the charger. Since it was charging, I never heard it ring. He saw that there were two missed calls and I had to figure out who would be calling me so early during the week. My wife thought that the awards might be given that day so she dashed into her office and looked up the awards and they had literally just announced that I had won. I guess the only number they had was my cell phone. I’ve made it a point to keep it on my nightstand now.
BBS:    What have these past weeks been like since you won—both personally and career-wise?

CRS:    Personally, it’s been great because when you do what I do, you’re pretty much alone, but with the award came press and local publicity which drew attention from friends and colleagues. Career-wise, it’s already opened doors to projects that use photography. The old knock that photography doesn’t do well seems to be moot now.

BBS:    You won for your book MY PEOPLE, a photo-illustrated version of the brief, but poignant Langston Hughes poem. Your pictures in this book are beautiful and resonant.  How did this project come to be?

CRS:    I had always loved the poem and considered doing photos for it for a while, but since it was so short, I wasn’t sure it could be done. Finally, at one point, I just broke it down page wise and saw that it would be very simple but strong with so few words.

BBS:    I’ve read how your first book, RIMSHOTS, came about, and find the story fascinating. Recount for us how one of your greatest passions, your acquired technical skills, and your natural abilities—all converged at one point in time, and set you on the path to a whole new career.
CRS:    I truly believe that we create our own luck. That book (Rimshots) came about in the oddest way, because I wasn’t there to sell a book at all; I was there to do photos for a jacket. Nonetheless my skill in photography was there and my passion for writing was there and since I had been hustling my tail off until that point, it was only fitting that things happen the way they did. One thing I’ve learned is that if you do something you love, then that love will shine through and it can’t help but be noticed. Those basketball photos were done for the sheer love of the game. My skill in photography allowed me to share that love with others.

BBS:    Your love for sports, especially basketball, is evidenced in the majority of your books to date. What’s your first memory of the game…how’d you fall in love with it? Why do you think it still occupies such a prominent place in your heart today?

CRS:    When kids ask me why I love basketball, I ask them the same question and get a million different answers, but the primary one is simply that it’s fun. I can’t remember my earliest memory, but my childhood is filled with memories of the game being played with my father and family and friends. That’s probably what I remember the most; the connection with all the people. I have two boys now and we have a hoop in the backyard and I look forward to teaching them things my father taught me, about ball and life.

BBS:    You are one who is equally writer and illustrator. You even have books where you’ve served as writer, solely (the graphic novel, THE MIGHTY 12: SUPERHEROES OF GREEK MYTH; LET’S PLAY BASEBALL and LET’S PLAY BASKETBALL). At what point in your life did you first start writing? Did you ever take any courses or workshops to develop your talent in this area?

CRS:    I’ve been writing for enjoyment as long as I can remember. While in school, we all have our favorite subjects and writing just happened to be mine. What I do remember standing out is that I always had a big vocabulary and knack for words. Probably because my parents emphasized education and my mom was always telling me to look up a word in the dictionary if I asked her how to spell it. I was in honors English all through high school but the college I went to was an all photography school, so I didn’t get to really study my writing. I actually think that’s a good thing, because writing is a very individual thing and if you study with a group of people, you can all end up sounding similar because you’re constantly listening to others critique your work. On my own, I just relied on knowledge gained through reading lots of books through the years.

BBS:    DANCE WITH ME (illustrated by Noah Z. Jones) is a popular picture book for the pre-K set that you authored. How did you come up with the idea for this one?

CRS:    That actually came from seeing my oldest son (who, at the time was about 3) dance when music was played. I wanted to do something for that age set and something musical made sense.

BBS:    Let me ask you about CHAMELEON, the first YA novel you’ve published. As a writer, how was the transition from crafting picture books, to crafting a novel?

CRS:    To me, they’re all words. It’s just how they’re put together. Picture books are not easy because you have to be mindful of page count, so you choose your words carefully. In a novel, you can use as many words as you need. In that regard it was much easier. When I would re-read what I had written, I just asked myself if I wanted to read more. I try to keep it real simple.

BBS:    While your photographs are all phenomenal, I must say I’ve got special fuzzies for your “baby” books:  the BABY LOVE board book series, and the one that started it all, BROWN SUGAR BABIES.  The text is pure and simple, the pictures beyond adorable.  And the only project direction you had for BROWN SUGAR BABIES was a title, is that right?

CRS:    Basically. I had a meeting with Andrea Davis Pinkney and she just wanted to do something that focused on diversity regarding blackness. The first thing that popped into my head when she said the title was Sugar Babies the candy. That led to treats that we often use to describe ourselves like honey or caramel or chocolate.

BBS:    Your children have inspired your work. Of course, so have sports.  Is there any other person, place or thing that spurs your creativity?

CRS:    As an artist I’m really just inspired everyday by life. The best way I like to describe it to kids is that I’m a raw nerve and everything triggers something in my brain. I could be speaking at a school and hear a child’s unique name and questions pop into my head like, why did their parents name them that? Or, how will that affect them when they’re older? Or, who else in that family had that name? What were they like? Things like that. My mind is ALWAYS going, but I think that’s the case with any creative artist; painter, photographer, actor, musician, etc. We see the everyday and take something creative out of it.

BBS:    What’s been the most difficult professional obstacle you’ve had to face thus far?
 
CRS:    The biggest obstacle probably has to be, editors and others asking, what am I? Am I a photographer who writes? Or a writer who take pictures? These questions are posed to me in a roundabout way, because I just consider myself an artist; I create. I’ve done a CD where I did the music, but I don’t call myself a musician. I’ve done some acting, but I don’t call myself an actor. I’m simply an artist. When people are used to artists doing one thing, they have an idea of what they can do, but once they start doing very different things (such as writing and photography) it confuses them because they don’t know the skill level you might possess in each. The biggest thing the CSK award has done is open people’s eyes to my talents. I also received the CSK Author’s Honor award for (writing) my book, Twelve Rounds to Glory, about Muhammad Ali. Now that I’ve WON the award for illustration, people see that I’m serious about both.

BBS:    Is there anything you haven’t yet done in the childlit field that you’d still like to do?

CRS:    Well, I’m not dead yet, so there’s plenty left for me to do. I would love to do a few different novel series. I would particularly love to do a series that has the same appeal as Percy Jackson or Harry Potter but featuring black characters, without the focus on them being black. Black people could fly too ya know. :-0  I have many more biographies I’d like to do. I’d like to write a modern day Native Son. I’d like to write more novels that appeal specifically to boys, young black boys. I have tons that I’d like to do and I’ll keep creating until I heave my last breath.

BBS:    Charles, list five words that describe the traits aspiring authors and illustrators must have to achieve success in their craft.

CRS:    Confidence. Perseverance. Creativity. Teamwork. Discipline.

BBS:    What new projects are you working on?

CRS:    I’m currently working on a biography of Jimi Hendrix. It’s written as a song. Right now, it’s a long song, but that’ll change.

BBS:    I know this is an exciting, but crazy period for you. Thanks for taking time out to share your thoughts and experiences with us.

CRS:    No prob. It’s fun looking back on the past and forward to the future.

BBS:    A few more questions, I promise they won’t take long… Planned or pick up game?

CRS:    Pickup.

BBS:    Wood floors or concrete?

CRS:    For basketball, wood floors because of my knees.

BBS:    Hot Dogs or Nachos?

CRS:    Neither. Chips and salsa. (Hey, I’m a California boy!)

Critical Praise for My People:

” ‘At just thirty-three words total, [this] poem is a study in simplicity,’ writes Smith (Rimshots; If); in its visual simplicity, his picture-book presentation is a tour de force. Introducing the poem two or three words at a time, Smith pairs each phrase with a portrait of one or more African-Americans; printed in sepia, the faces of his subjects materialize on black pages. The night, reads the opening spread, across from an image of a mans face, his eyes shut; is beautiful, continues the next spread, showing the same face, now with eyes open and a wide smile. The text, sized big to balance the portraits, shows up in hues that range from white to tan to brown-black, reflecting Smiths reading that the words celebrate black people of differing shades and ages. An inventive design adds a short, shadowed row or column of small portraits to the edge of many spreads; these quietly reinforce the concept of my people. Whether of babies, children or adults, Smiths faces emerge into the light, displaying the best that humanity has to offer—intelligence, wisdom, curiosity, love and joy. Ages 4–8.”— Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

“Smith’s knack for pairing poetry and photography is well documented in books such as Hoop Queens (Candlewick, 2003) and Rudyard Kipling’s If (S & S, 2006). Here, his artful images engage in a lyrical and lively dance with Langston Hughes’s brief ode to black beauty. Dramatic sepia portraits of African Americans—ranging from a cherubic, chubby-cheeked toddler to a graying elder whose face is etched with lines-are bathed in shadows, which melt into black backgrounds. The 33 words are printed in an elegant font in varying sizes as emphasis dictates. In order to maximize the effect of the page turn and allow time for meaning to be absorbed, the short phrases and their respective visual narratives often spill over more than a spread. The conclusion offers a montage of faces created with varying exposures, a decision that provides a light-filled aura and the irregularities that suggest historical prints. A note from Smith describes his approach to the 1923 poem. This celebration of the particular and universal will draw a wide audience: storytime participants; students of poetry, photography, and cultural studies; seniors; families. A timely and timeless offering.”—Starred Review, School Library Journal

Learn More about Charles and his books at charlesrsmithjr.com

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Grown Too Soon

August 7, 2017

Too many times we’ve heard the refrain “gone too soon” to allude to a life cut short. A wistful phrase lamenting the potential of one who has earned their wings prematurely. Sadly, the sentiment can also be applied to children of color and the premature death of their innocence.  But I’ll call it grown too soon, instead.

In Black culture, being “grown” is never confused with being a “grown up.”  Being a grown up means to reach adulthood and join the rat race, no matter how reluctantly.  To be grown, is to adopt adult mannerisms. This can be a sharp/sassy tongue, acting out or promiscuous behavior. If someone tells you you’re too grown, it ain’t nothing good. And it’s usually followed by a reprimand or worse.  Tressie McMillian Cottom (@tressiemcphd) covers the promiscuity aspect in an excellent NY Times Op-ed.

Few parents allow children to get away with being grown. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, very few children of color have the luxury of maintaining child-like innocence beyond the age of 8. Both in my childhood experience and in raising my daughters, I’d say eight was about the time the world reached into our lives and dictated that it could no longer be sugar coated.

Sometimes the experience is a world event (9/11, school shootings, a certain Presidential campaign) and other times it’s more personal – like dealing with overt racism by a classmate. Whatever the situation, it requires the adult to shoot straight with the only thing that’s left, the ugly truth. They’re the conversations no parent likes to have because you know, at its end, you’ve stripped one more layer of innocence from your child.

We’re foolish to think we can keep chipping those layers away without it leading to a little grownness. At the very least, our children come away with a wary world-view made worse as incident after incident shows them how tough things can be when your skin has a tint.

Unless society changes drastically, this is simply the way things are for brown children. Luckily, many parents find ways to balance preparation for the real world with plenty of opportunities to let kids be kids.  And here, I applaud the authors of color who naturally portray this sticky wicket in our fiction. No heavy-handed lessons, just life as it is.

This matter hit home, recently, as I journey closer to the publication of my first MG novel, So Done. My wonderful editor sent over a sample book cover. I loved it. But the sample featured two young girls who looked years older than my 13-year-old characters. Despite the vivid color and fun lettering, the girls’ age was the first thing I noticed. The only, to be honest.

All I could think was – I don’t want these girls portrayed too grown. So Done’s underlying story showcases the adult issues facing the girls. I didn’t want them to look too mature lest anyone begin the age-old cycle of solely blaming young Black people for their grownness. You know the phrase  – “Well no wonder [fill in some offense that’s their fault], look how grown they look.”

I outlined these concerns and after quickly assuring me it was only a mock-up to squarely identify the artistic style and direction, my editor said something else important – that she understood my concerns. That they were noted.

I’d like more people to start there – understand and note the concern. Remember why so many Black kids and other children of color exude an air of seriousness or level of maturity that leans dangerously close to being grown. It’s not an act. And in most cases, the kid isn’t being disrespectful on purpose. They simply can’t unsee the world around them.

Being grown too soon is the reality of far too many of our kids. In order to provide well-rounded depictions of our children, authors of color must be at the table to show exactly how kids are still able to be kids in spite of the grownness thrust upon them.