During his childhood, photographer and children's book author Charles R. Smith Jr. spent many hours with characters in books traveling the world, solving mysteries or living in different times in history. Now he combines his photographic skills with his love of reading, writing and sports in his award-winning books, including "Hoop Queens" and its companion, "Hoop Kings" -- both volumes of his poetry. "Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali "(2007) is winner of a 2008 Coretta Scott King Author Honor and 2008 Norman Sugarman Best Biography Honor. His latest book is "Chameleon" (Candlewick, September 2008). He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2008 National Book Festival
You’ve written both poetry and non-fiction books. What sparked your imagination for your new novel, Chameleon?
Chameleon began with four boys just talking. One day the voices appeared and they were having a real fun conversation so I had one of them tell a story. I liked what I had written, but didn’t add to it until a couple of years later. In the time between, I would re-read it and I always enjoyed it, so I asked my agent at the time to read it and she convinced me it was a novel that had to be written.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
Ultimately, writing is all about problem solving. Since the writer is creating a world, they have to answer questions as they arise in a believable yet unique way. The first question is which voice to use? First, second or third? Then, who does that voice belong to? A boy, a girl? Are they old, young? Black, white? And so on. To answer these questions I look to the outside world for inspiration, but then color it with details from personal experience. For example, I may read a newspaper story about someone that did something very brave or even very stupid and that can be part of the story, but my life experience as a human being with others helps me create a true person and not just a stereotype.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
The best advice any writer will tell you of course is to read. Some people will tell you only read good stuff, but I think you should read everything, good and bad. If a book bores you to death, figure out why and do the opposite when you write yourself. Secondly, and I can’t stress it enough, live an interesting life. One reason it’s tough for youngsters to write unique stories is their life experience is limited due to their age. But that doesn’t always have to be the case; a twelve year old who’s traveled the world will have more stories to tell than a thirty year old who’s never left their city.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
One poetry exercise that I always use when working with students of all ages, from kindergarten to college is one that focuses on them called, “I Am.” The student repeats the phrase “I Am” to describe themselves in as many unique ways as possible. The objective is to express what makes them unique in this world. Not just physical description, but what makes up their soul. Even kindergartners can grasp this because they know each of them is different; the trick is showing them how to express that. I tell the students there is no page limit, they can write as many lines as they want because human beings are complex and their words should reflect that.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
As a teenager I read tons of comic books, Marvel in particular: X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-man, and plenty others. I think it’s important that kids know that writers such as myself (and plenty of my colleagues) read comic books, magazines and such because when many kids think of books, they think of big fat novels and when you ask if they like to read, not many hands will raise. But if you ask who likes comic books or magazines or newspapers, lots of hands go up. As far as actual books go, Judy Blume was a favorite as far as individual authors go, but I also loved Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Right now for kids books, I recently fell in love with the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I did a book on Greek mythology illustrated by a comic book artist and his series reads like a well-written comic book without the pictures but with all the action.
If you were not creating poetry or writing books, what do you think you would be doing?
It’s hard to say, because 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.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
Many of the skills in life that have made me successful have come from playing sports. Confidence in ability, determination, discipline, practice and perseverance among others things, are traits I like to show in my characters and stories because they manifest themselves in different ways in different people. As a young black man who had a great father for a role model (he passed away in 1999) I also want to pass on some of his wisdom to young black kids who may not have that same positive role model in their lives. I never want to be heavy-handed in this, but I feel a personal responsibility to show a kaleidoscope of black experiences to the world.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Parents, if you want your kids to read, YOU have to read. I can’t stress that enough. It’s one thing to say it, but if all you ever do is watch TV, that’s what they’ll want to do. But if they see you reading the newspaper at breakfast, or flipping through a magazine or reading the latest murder mystery, your kids will pick up on that and will imitate you. My parents did those things, so I did too. Also, don’t elevate one form of reading over another. Words come from everywhere, whether it be a magazine, comic book or novel.