Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
You need soap
Because I smell you.
When Charles Smith Jr. stood before his teacher and classmates as a second-grader in California and uttered those words to the first poem he ever wrote, his future was decided then and there.
“It wasn’t the words, but the reaction I got to the words – laughter,” he said. “I realized the power that words have, and I fell in love with that power.”
Now an accomplished photographer and author of more than 20 (mostly children’s) books, Mr. Smith, 39, visited Auburn Middle School Jan. 13 to address all three grade levels of students and to conduct a writers’ workshop for 20 AMS students who applied to attend.
The author wowed students from the start when he recited his autobiographical poem “About Me” which proclaimed of his adolescence, “…But while some squeezed triggers and others got high, I turned to books to let my mind fly…” Referencing NBA players he has met and worldwide locations he has visited, Smith’s initial words gripped his young audience through the concluding verse:
So many sights and sounds
that I can write down
from places I read
in books that I found
filled with words
that planted the seed
of dreams for me
when I chose to read.”
In two one-hour assemblies, Mr. Smith chronicled his career, discussing his life as a professional photographer and writer and where his career has taken him. He said he abandoned a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut when he discovered sports photography while on the yearbook staff in high school.
“That’s the point of high school, isn’t it? To find out what we’re interested in. I took pictures of sports and I realized I wanted to be a sports photographer,” he said. Moving to New York City to become a photographer’s assistant, Smith found himself traveling all over the United States – to 42 states, he said, including Hawaii – and all over the world – Mexico, Italy, Japan. He photographed politicians, NBA All-Stars and celebrities – Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, John Travolta and Emma Thompson. When the 50 greatest NBA players were chosen in celebration of the 50th birthday of the NBA, the young Mr. Smith had the opportunity to talk with many of them. He had his own picture taken with Wilt Chamberlain, the only NBA player ever to score 100 points in a single game.
On the heels of dropping such big names to his Auburn audience, Mr. Smith told the students what he discovered about the best way to photograph celebrities: “As people,” he said simply. He talked about what goes into creating a photograph and how his photography led to his becoming a children’s author.
“I got into children’s books in an odd way,” he said. “I kind of snuck in.”
With more and more photo assignments coming his way, he had assembled a substantive portfolio of his work. When he showed his portfolio to a children’s book publisher, she was especially impressed with his black and white basketball photographs and told Smith, “This would make a really cool children’s book.” Pursuing the idea, Smith said he settled on the pictures first and then looked at each of the pictures for ideas. One particular photo depicted a small boy – with basketball in hand – gazing way up, up, up at the seemingly endlessly far-away rim of the basketball hoop.
“I put myself in that kid’s shoes,” he said, “and a floodgate of memories opened up about playing basketball when I was young. At first I thought I was cheating because it was so easy writing down all my personal memories, but I realized that since each of us is unique and can focus on our own memories, that is what makes our writing unique.”
Thus came the book “Rimshots,” followed through the years by other sports-themed books, including “Hoop Queens” “Hoop Kings,” “Diamond Life,” “Winning Words,” “Tall Tales” and “Short Takes,” all featuring his photography.
Other children’s books written by Smith are illustrated by others, including “Dance with Me,” “Let’s Play Basketball,” “Let’s Play Baseball,” “The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth,” and “Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali,” which won the 2008 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award and the 2008 Norman Sugarman Best Biography Honor Book. “The Mighty 12,” which resulted from his love of reading comic books, features illustrations by Craig Russell. “I can’t draw,” he told the Auburn students, “but as a writer, the process starts with me.”
“Twelve Rounds to Glory” earned Smith an invitation to the National Book Festival where he met and talked with First Lady Laura Bush. His award-winning book, illustrated by Bryan Collier, is unusual for its unique voice. “I chose second voice – you, rather than I or he – because I wanted it to be as if Ali were seated in a chair next to me and I was telling him his life story.”
The book “My People,” released just last week, features the well-known poem by Langston Hughes penned in the early 1920’s and now published in book form with Smith’s stunning photographs.
“I’ve always loved to read, and Langston Hughes was one of the early influences on my life,” Smith explained. “His poem ‘My People’ has few words so I focused on facial expressions. I took the pictures in black and white and used a sepia tone. I think the simplicity of the poem is able to come through in the pictures.”
In September Smith’s first-ever novel, “Chameleon” was published, aimed at eighth-graders and above. Why did he decide to write a novel? “It was something new to do,” he said.
Smith closed his assembly with a question-answer session with students. One sixth-grader asked where he got his ideas for books.
“I get ideas from the world,” he said, “just everything around me. I probably don’t have more ideas than you. I just write them down.”
His advice to budding writers was straightforward: “Live an interesting life,” he said. “Then you’ll have things to write about.”