Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘picture books

From award-winning poet and photographer Charles Smith, Jr. comes a book which celebrates the children of the world through poetry and photography. While the poetry is average and the design is sometimes random, the photos are bold and lavish. I also appreciated the handling of diversity. I am the world is a quick and easy read with a positive message, which should please parents and teachers alike.

The prose seems to follow the pattern of one popular type of writing in schools, that of I AM poems. While there’s nothing exceptional about Smith’s verse, his one-liners sometimes rhyme and, when read aloud, have a pleasing beat. Some lines can be read by younger readers: “I am the world, I am strong….” Others are better suited to older readers: “I am the bite in bratwurst. I am the snap in biscotti.” Because I AM poems are studied in school, I am the world will feel familiar to students, and so it can serve as a launching pad for teachers in helping students create their own “I am the world” poems. Moreover, the pro-diversity message in I am the world is perfect. We aren’t just colors, foods, costumes, or language. We’re all of these things combined.

The photos are of strong quality, although the design is sometimes more random. On the first few pages photos are placed on top of a white background, but for the remaining pages they are placed on top of a black background. Sometimes text is average size and other times it’s small or big. While this can be done intentionally for a playful effect or emphasis, that does not seem to be the case here. While it didn’t bother me, and probably won’t bother most young readers, some critics did correctly note that text occasionally obscures the photo it describes. On the plus side, the photos are prominent and for the most part fit the text. Also, each line of poetry has a word in a color which matches the color of the outfit being worn by the child in the portrait. Expressions also seem to match the description, with serious faces being shown to accompany lines about warriors and queens and happy faces being shown to match lines about food and fashion.

I am the world might contain lackluster poetry, but it is a highly visual book with a profound sentiment. It might also serve to inspire readers to create their own I AM photo poems. Already I’m seeing maple leafs and thinking, “I am the sweet of maple sugar.” I AM poems are both easier and harder to write than you might think. Borrow I am the world by Charles Smith, search for other I AM poems online, and start creating your own masterpieces today.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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.

Charles Smith combines his love of reading, photography, and sports when he writes books. Tomorrow I’ll post an interview where he talks about those three passions. I’ll review his picture book, I am The World, on Wednesday. Save the dates: February 25-26!

Born and raised in California, Charles Smith spent a lot of time reading collections of stories and poems. “Many hours were spent with characters traveling the world, solving mysteries, or living in a different time in history,” Smith writes on his About Me page. Reading inspired Smith to write. The more he read; the more he wrote.

With the Library of Congress, one thing about reading which Smith stressed is that it’s important for young people to realize that authors read more than just novels. While Smith enjoyed popular authors of the time such as Judy Blume and series such as the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, he also read comics, magazines, and even the dictionary. One example that stands out is Time Magazine, which helped Smith become aware of the world. He also got a kick out of looking at images in National Geographic.

CharlesSmith_PhotographerGrowing up, Smith also spent a lot of time playing sports. He played everything, particularly basketball, and spent many afternoons on the court perfecting his jump shot. Today sports figures hugely in his books. Rimshots, his first book, is about pix, rolls, and rhythms in basketball. It’s a collection of stories and poems mixed with black and white photos. While many of his picture books focus on basketball, Smith has diverse sports interests. For example, Diamond Life is about the sights, sounds, and swings of baseball. Smith believes that many of the skills in life that have made him successful have come from playing sports.

During a stint on the high school yearbook committee, Smith fell in love with photography. He decided to make it a lifetime pursuit. According to his About Me page, “Right up until that point I wanted to be an astronaut and walk on the moon, but after taking yearbook pictures nonstop for a year, I knew I wanted to learn how to be a professional photographer.” Smith graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography and moved to New York to pursue his dream.

Smith didn’t forget, however, about his other loves. He continued writing, with an influence of rap music, he especially started to focus on poems. However, when it comes to writing children’s books, Smith explained to Reading Rockets that he kind of slipped into the back door. He approached a children’s book publisher about going photographic book covers. The art director who hires the photographers saw his collection of photographs of guys playing basketball and told him, “These pictures should be their own book.” Smith mentioned that he was a writer and the result was Rim Shots.

Since then, many of his books have celebrated sports, but also heroes who inspired him, and childhood interests such as myths. To read more about his varied inspirations, check out his interview with Reading Rockets. Smith currently lives in New York with his wife and three kids.

I adore Fuddles, a picture book cat created by Frans Vischer. Perhaps that’s why, despite some repetitive ideas and the lack of a fully developed story, I still enjoyed A Very Fuddles Christmas.

For those unfamiliar with Fuddles, he is a fat and pampered cat. Fuddles first burst into the picture book scene as an indoor cat who seeks out an outdoor adventure but, through a series of hilarious mishaps, realizes that indoor life is actually pretty good. Now, Fuddles is back just in time for Christmas. Sadly, no part of the holiday season is for him. Not the delicious meal, the toys and treats, or even the Christmas tree. When Fuddles lands into trouble for climbing the ladder, he scampers away in a panic and finds himself …. outdoors. Just like in the first book. Except this time, there’s snow on the ground. Which means, unlike the original story, Fuddles very much wants back inside. In his first adventure, Fuddles can’t figure out how to get home. In this second adventure, he can’t figure out how to get back to his house. Yes, there is a difference in the tale, but there’s also enough overlap that one could view it as the recycling of an idea. While this might bother adults, I don’t think younger readers will care. In fact, they will probably appreciate the familiarity.

As Fuddles tries to find his way home, danger lurks everywhere. True to form, Fuddles bravely faces the elements. The cold. The wind. The squirrels. This is where I wish Vischer had taken a little more time on developing the drama. As any cat would, Fuddles chases the squirrels. Then he follows them up a tree and onto a roof. Where they escape, but he tumbles down a chimney. Where suddenly everything about the holiday season is for him. More attention to the interactions between Fuddles and the squirrels might have made this a more original tale. More explanation of why his family doted on him immediately after his return might have helped the story hold together better. A Very Fuddles Christmas isn’t without its faults.

Yet Fuddles is every inch a cat. Both aggravating and adorable! Cat owners will find their own pet on the pages. The artwork is also super cute. If you haven’t already Vischer’s first book about this cocky and spoiled cat, I’d recommend reading it first to become a fan. Once you’re hooked, you’ll want to read A Very Fuddles Christmas too, because it’ll be about an old friend.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

SusanSweenieSusan Sweenie is a public relations consultant and freelance writer from Massachusetts. A teacher in her history class once told her mother that she was meant to be a writer. At Sweenie’s first college internship, a television station, Sweenie learned about journalism and her writing passion grew. Authors are often advised to write about what they know. Being a mother of two daughters, Sweenie knows children well–and so decided to write a children’s book. Her family serves as her inspiration, especially her daughters who inspire Sweenie with their questions. Sweenie likes to write because it gives her opportunity to express herself non-verbally, something which is important for a shy person. Writing is therapeutic for her. Girls Don’t Take Karate is her first book.

ALLISON: What were your favorite childhood interests?

SUSAN: As a child, I loved art, and especially book illustration. I was very crafty and enjoyed taking the time to sit and work on a special art project. I always wanted to be an art teacher, but ended up in PR instead. Go figure!

ALLISON: Were you discriminated against as a girl? Have your daughters experienced biases due to being girls?

SUSAN: In some ways, yes. I grew up in the 80s and back then, girls didn’t do as much. There was no karate for girls back then. There was also no lacrosse or girls soccer back then either. Times surely have changed.

I personally haven’t witnessed any bias for [my daughters], but they are young.

ALLISON: What obstacles did you face in writing your first book?

SUSAN: The biggest obstacle is nailing down the theme of the book and getting it to flow correctly. This took quite some time and even today, I wonder if it all flows correctly.

ALLISON: What was your best writing moment?

SUSAN: Biggest moment was when my publisher agreed to publish the book. That was one of my best days ever!

ALLISON: You indicate in one interview that you’re shy. What impact did shyness have on you when growing up?

SUSAN: Yes, as a child, I was known as the ‘shy” kid. I never took on the initiative of getting involved in activities or sports or classroom conversations. I dreaded it when someone asked me something. I believe I just lacked confidence and it was very hard because I know that I missed out on a lot of great experiences and friendships. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have tried harder.

ALLISON: Sometimes those who are shy avoid opportunities, but you found a way around this with words. What advice do you have for other young people who are shy?

SUSAN: My biggest piece of advice is to set goals for yourself. Where would we be if we didn’t have goals? As a child, my first goal was college. I succeeded, got into a great college. Then, my goal was to land a great job and career. I succeeded again and love what I do! Next was to take on a new goal, something out of the box for me…. writing a book and getting it published! It is such a great feeling to pursue something and see it really take off!

ALLISON: How do you daughters feel about your having a book published?

SUSAN: They think it is the coolest thing ever! They never understood my “day job” which is public relations, so now they FINALLY get that i am a writer.

ALLISON: What’s next?

SUSAN: I do have plans for another book, but still in the early stages, so stay tuned!

Author Susan Sweenie wrote Girls Don’t Take Karate for two reasons.

  • First, she wanted to show her two daughters that one can do anything if one set their mind to it. Publishing a book had always been a dream of hers and she wanted to show her girls that with a little hard work, anything is possible.
  • Second, she saw a lack of children’s books focusing on empowering girls and wanted to write a book that sent a message to young girls that they can do anything that boys can do while encouraging them to try something different. 

What do you think of the need for that message for today? Who or what instilled this message in you? What are your favorite books for empowering girls?


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