Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Charles Smith Jr.

Posted on: February 25, 2014

CharlesSmithWhen asked by Library of Congress what career choice he would make if not writing, Charles Smith answered that he wasn’t sure. “…. writing affords me the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds for periods of time. It’s best to write from experience so I constantly find myself peeking into different worlds. If I’m writing about flying a jet, I can talk to pilots and even fly in a jet to experience that feeling. I’m also a photographer and I’ve had some great experiences in my life that came courtesy of my skill with a camera as well as my skill with words, so I don’t think I’d change a thing.”

In my interview I ask him about his love of books, photography, and sports. Tomorrow I’ll post my review of his picture book I am the World. Save the date: February 26!

ALLISON: How did your parents influence your childhood?

CHARLES: My parents are my biggest inspiration by far. They both preached hard work and education lived it to great success.

ALLISON: You enjoyed sports. Why didn’t you make a career from it?

CHARLES: Even though I played a ton of sports as a kid, I didn’t grow tall until my senior year of high school. I was very good at basketball but not so much that I thought I wanted to go pro. At that time I had dreams of being an astronaut since the space program was so big at the time.

ALLISON: You’ve written about baseball and basketball best. What appeals most to you about them? Any other sports interest you?

CHARLES: I played those sports, along with plenty others growing up and the thing that appeals to me about sports is the drama as a spectator and the improvised action as an athlete. As a spectator, you can watch something unfold before your eyes that you didn’t expect and that creates the ultimate in drama. As an athlete though, you get to react with your body to something that can make you a hero or not. Circumstances are ever-changing and to have success you have to work hard and put in the work. Passion plays a big role also in that if you love what you are doing, you will practice it on end. All of these things have helped me in my career as a writer/photographer.

ALLISON: How did your peers influence you during adolescence?

CHARLES: My peers didn’t influence me much but we did compete a fair amount in class to get good grades. I was in honors english in high school and it was a very motivated bunch and the competition brought out the best in all of us.

ALLISON: What appeals to you about photography?

CHARLES: I love observing something and capturing it for prosperity. I also love communicating visually to others how I see the world.

ALLISON:How did you set about becoming a professional photographer?

CHARLES: When I realized I was not going to college to be an astronaut, I had fallen in love with photography and decided to go to college for that. I’m originally from California and decided that I would move to New York upon graduation and two days after I graduated, I did just that.

ALLISON: How do your wife and children influence you now as an adult?

CHARLES: My wife is a great sounding board for my work in that she is often the first to hear something I’ve written. If she says it sounds like something I’d write, I know I’m on the right track. As for my kids, as they’ve gotten older, they’ve helped me with books here and there in terms of a line here or a word there or even an idea here and there. I also get to see if the language I’m using is too easy or difficult since they are 9, 14 and 15.

ALLISON: I teach students a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, and poems. Besides the ease in reading poems quickly, what do you think can be the appeal of poetry over straightforward narrative?

CHARLES: An entertaining poem can stay with you because poetry often relies on rhythm and imagery to get a point across. This can be an advantage over a fiction due to the length of the story. Poetry also breaks rules and what appeals to one person may not appeal to another. What I hear from kids about my poetry is that they didn’t know you could write a poem on the subjects I often write about, particularly basketball.

ALLISON:Did you have a difficulty selling poetic text for nonfiction matter such as The Mighty 12?

CHARLES: Some books have been tougher sells (to editors) that others and The Mighty 12 was one such book. In this case, it didn’t really have to do with the book per se, just that most publishers already had their “Greek Mythology” book and didn’t need another. They loved the idea, but they felt one “myth book” was enough. I was confident in the concept though and felt it just needed the right home, and thankfully that happened.

Black Jack (illustrated by Shane Evans) was also an initial tough sell, but in this instance the material wasn’t quite age appropriate. Jack Johnson (first black heavyweight boxing champ) had quite a unique life and the time period and his treatment in America at the time made it tough to write to a younger audience. Publishers loved his story but the way it was written was aimed at an older audience that wouldn’t read it as a picture book. Ultimately, one editor learned my youngest son was 7 and asked if I would read the book to him and when I said definitely not, I knew what I had to do. I focused on how he dreamed of being great as a child and went about pursuing his dream when he realized he was skilled as a fighter. I wrote it to read to my son and that allowed me to keep the focus on Jack pursuing his dream and not what Jack had to deal with.

ALLISON: How did you come up with idea for I am the World?

CHARLES: The idea came from another book I did years ago called I am America. I always wanted to do a follow-up and even though it took a while and another publisher, I was glad it was able to happen.

ALLISON:What selection process went into the pictures and words? Once the words were written, I set about “casting” kids for each line. Since I wanted to be as accurate to the culture as possible, some lines changed based on new knowledge. For instance, one line says, “I am the history in Indian ghagras,” but the original line was “I am the history in Indian saris.” I changed it because the mother of the girl I was going to photograph told me that a sari is worn by an adult woman, whereas a child would wear a ghagra. Thankfully it was still 2 syllables but more importantly, it was culturally accurate.

ALLISON: What is your favorite reading material other than books?

CHARLES: I love reading magazines. As a photographer, I can appreciate the visuals and as an adult man with a variety of interest, I get to learn something new all the time.

To learn more about the inspiration behind his varied books, read the Reading Rockets Transcript from an Interview with Charles Smith.

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