Charles R. Smith, Jr.

Charles R. Smith

By Sheilah Egan

   Opening with "Let My Mind Fly," a rap he wrote about how books set him free to travel the world in both imagination and reality, Charles R. Smith, Jr. captured the audience's attention from the first moment his rich voice floated out into the auditorium. One can imagine this scene being replayed across the country as he visits schools, spreading his message that "reading plants the seeds of dreams" and "poetry" can provide a "I am the King of the World" moment for anyone.

   By giving a concise glimpse of his own life, Smith engages young people who can relate with a life that could have turned to gang membership but was rerouted by books. The screen behind him was filled with a picture of him as an eighth grade student. That was a year that seemed to be a turning point for Smith as he thought of the future and what his plan for it might be. Though he sometimes wished to be an astronaut, he found his way to the school's year book staff. He was soon taking sports photos and writing about them. He realized that he "had" to go to college and chose photography. After graduating from the Brooks Institute for Photography in California he had a two part "life plan." First he moved to New York City, confident that he would work for another photographer and learn enough to be able to go out on his own as a photographer. The second part of his plan came to pass after he had developed an impressive portfolio while working and traveling for "shoots," including those done in Hawaii, France, Italy, and other exotic locations. The slide show continued as he discussed his favorite places. Later in the presentation he asked the students questions such as, "What are some of my favorite places to visit and photograph?" Of course, "Paris" was the first answer heard from the crowd. He invited the student to come up on the stage and interact with him in a little demonstration of a boxing strategy. From then on the students hung on every word, hoping that they would be the next person up on the stage with Smith. Even the principal was given a few tips about handling oneself in the ring. Needless to say this was very popular with students.

   His erect bearing and confident grace as he moves reveal his active participation in martial arts practice and "the art of boxing." Basketball had been his sport of choice but knee injuries forced him to seek another outlet for his energy and need for exercise and discipline. Students heard him discuss a variety of skills that transfer from sports to daily life while he spoke about the evolution of his career as a photographer to that of an author and poet. When he approached an editor at Children's Press about possibly using some of his photographs for jacket covers, he was advised that there was a "book in there." Thus he began to write about basketball and use his photos to create Rimshots, Hoop Queens, and Hoop Kings. Twenty-nine books later he is entrancing readers and using words to reach out to them on multiple levels. In his book Chameleon, the novel's basic premise is "on the street or on the court you've got to watch your back." Cloaking his messages in stories and biographies makes it possible for him to share strong positive ideas with a wide range of young people. Using rap and poetry makes it possible for him to demonstrate the power of the spoken word to large groups in a way that seems very personal.

   Charles R. Smith, Jr. embodies many of the traits that make an excellent teacher. He is extremely respectful of students and yet never expects "less." He understands (perhaps from good examples in his own family and from working with his own children) how to pull the best from each person he meets, boosting confidence and encouraging all the while. Employing lots of little "gimmicks" in his presentations he garners lots of interaction with students. Focus Mitts (boxing practice pads) allow for a quick exercise demonstrating focus, control, and discipline-all necessary for good writing and success in school. He also stresses his awareness of "showing" peers that select students have "status" in ways that may be different but that everyone has worth. His careful selection of people to go up on the stage demonstrates his awareness of those in the group that could most use the "boost" of celebrity treatment. Students and teachers alike are inspired by Charles Smith, all aspects education are well served by authors of this caliber.

   Check out the following titles intended for both students and teachers, and take some time to explore Charles' extensive website: More information and other titles can be located easily at



Baseball Crazy: Ten Short Stories That Cover All the Bases
Edited by Nancy E. Mercado
   The batter is up. The pitch is good. He swings. It is a home run! Springtime is the perfect time for these ten baseball stories which take you into the ballpark, out on the field, and into the hearts and minds of boys and girls who love to play and live for baseball. Readers will recognize many of the kids, parents, and coaches in these stories. There are the kids who play their hearts out, kids who just do not want to embarrass themselves, baseball crazy parents, absent parents, coaches that care only about winning, good sports, bad sports, and other memorable characters. The stories are poignant, funny, heartwarming, and sad, in turn. The characters and their feelings about baseball and life in general will ring true for readers. My personal favorite is "Smile Like Jeter" by Maria Testa. It is a poem narrated by a young boy who yearns to be a shortstop like his idol, but his coach has different ideas. It all works out the way it is supposed to. The anthology includes short stories, a poem, a play, and an entry about a women's softball league. Although baseball lovers are a prime audience for the book, the stories have something in them for all young readers. The universal themes (friendship, group dynamics, divorce, loss, parent/child relationships, sportsmanship) in the well written stories transcend the game of baseball. 2008, Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group, Ages 7 to 12, $16.99. Reviewer: Jeanne K. Pettenati, J.D. (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780803731622

Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   This account of the life of the first black heavyweight champion of the world is a solid text with strong rhythms and fabulous illustrations. Jack Johnson's story is one that many young readers may not be aware of, but they will quickly come to appreciate what he was able to accomplish with his considerable boxing skills and his indomitable spirit. As Smith explains, "But what Jack wanted most/ was to be a great man,/so he challenged the times./But it was Jack who was challenged/ when he faced the color line." Johnson easily defeated opponents across the country, but what he wanted was the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship; that, however, would mean fighting a white man, and the current champion, Jim Jeffries refused the fight. Johnson dogged his steps, so Jeffries retired rather than respond to Johnson's challenge. The next champion, Tommy Burns, also tried to evade Johnson, but he finally gave in after two years of challenges. Johnson beat Burns soundly, but the boxing establishment refused to hand him the title, encouraging Jeffries to come out of retirement instead. Jeffries eventually did, but he suffered the same fate as Burns, and finally, Johnson became the heavyweight champ. This is a great book to show a colorful and confident person in American history who refused to be cowed by racism. Jack Johnson was a true original, and this text showcases him well. 2010, Roaring Book Press, Ages 7 to 11, $16.99. Reviewer: Jean Boreen, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9781596434738

Brown Sugar Babies
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   In beautiful color photographs, Brown Sugar Babies pays tribute to all that is precious about babies. Smith uses such terms as brown sugar, cinnamon spice, honey, and peanut butter as ways to describe skin color. The pictures capture the essence of babies as they coo, gurgle, smooch, and cuddle with their parents while the text alliterates the body parts. This book is an excellent way to point out the similarities of our bodies like eyes, feet, and toes while also celebrating diversity. 2000, Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, Ages 2 to 4, $14.99. Reviewer: Melissa Johnson (The Lorgnette--Heart of Texas Reviews (Vol. 13, No. 4)).
ISBN: 9780786806225

Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   Smith scores with basketball players in this urban coming-of-age story. Shawn is an innocent fourteen-year-old hero who must choose between his personal safety and living his life unafraid. He and his boys spend their summer in search of courts where they will not have to deal with rival gangs. They do daily "color checks" to ensure their appearance is neutral; no red or blue clothing allowed. It is a long hot vacation with little money for food and fun, and they amuse themselves by discussing martial arts and girls. As shy Shawn develops a romantic interest, he slowly gains the social skills to pursue his crush. He also hides a family secret, and when it is ultimately revealed, it frees him to make his decision. As life goes on, he knows he can meet any challenge with the help of his friends. Detailed descriptions of moves on the court may not appeal to readers who do not play basketball, but the story is sure to ring true for anyone facing that last endless summer before high school. 2008, Candlewick, Ages 12 up, $16.99. Reviewer: Tina Dybvik (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763630850

Dance with Me
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   Candlewick's "Super Sturdy Picture Books" series titles have neat square shapes, heavy glossy paper, and, yes, sturdy board covers. In this book, two friends and their dog slide out of the house and dance their way along city streets, energizing everyone they meet. Bouncing into a bakery, the friends pick up a cake; twirling, they choose a pig-shaped balloon; wiggling and shaking, they shop at the pet store. Even the animals--a green iguana, a friendly pup, a furry ferret, red and white birds--join the choreography. As the dancers hurry toward another friend's front stoop, young readers can have fun guessing what is going on behind the lighted window. "Shake, shake, shake it, baby!" It is a birthday party with bright balloons and a table full of gifts (the friends' gift turns out to be the iguana). Noah Z. Jones's joyful illustrations, bursting with color and full of curving lines, are both simple and sophisticated, inviting kids to "Come and dance with me!" Readers may recall Jones's appealing pictures for Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, Candlewick, 2007. Enthusiastic participants could have fun producing their own jazzy beat to help them bounce through this cool mini-ballet. 2008, Candlewick, Ages 3 to 6, $8.99. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763622466

Diamond Life: Baseball Sights, Sounds, and Swings
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   "HEAR THAT SOUND?! Pop! Scratch Whiff Whack! Whooooosh! Zoom! Spit Crack! Scratch Smack! Bloop Slap! Zing! Scoop Ping! Clap!" And so goes the second poem in this fabulous book sure to appeal to anyone who has ever watched or played baseball. This quote has nowhere near the impact here as it does on the book's page with bright colors, letter spacing and varying sizes of the words. It instantly grabs your attention and brings you right into the world of baseball. The entire book not only has lively, gotta-read-out-aloud poetry, but it is also a visual feast. The table of contents shows a view of a baseball field as seen through a chain link fence. The poem mentioned above shows a baseball just as it is smacking into a mitt. While the layout of the poetry makes it even more eye catching, do not get me wrong, this book is not just bells and whistles. The flow of the poems, the energy that jumps out from the language, the instant feel for a day at the baseball diamond would be exceptional even without the added benefit of the visuals. The poem "Waiting Game" starts with the line, "Hey batta-batta-batta-batta-battaaaaaaa! Whaddya say there batta?" It instantly transported me back twenty years (okay, thirty years, okay, thirty-five years!) to watching my brother pitching at Little League games and all of us yelling from the bleachers. I remember my mother dumping me from her lap as she jumped up yelling when my brother struck someone out or hit a line drive (believe me, that is actually a good memory, my bum and my pride have recovered after all these years). But this is not just a book for the boys of summer. I have my own memories from my time on the field (in what was then called Ponytail Softball--why did the girls' sport have to mention a hairstyle? Hmmm.) and these poems convey the excitement I felt out there--in fact just reading these poems is getting my adrenalin pumping and it is time to pull out my mitt (the one I have had since junior high) and go play catch with my girls of summer. 2004, Orchard Books, Ages 4 to 8, $15.95. Reviewer: Sharon Levin (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780439431804

Hoop Kings: Poems
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   If you want a book that will make sports-minded boys find themselves suddenly interested in poetry, this is it. Smith presents a dozen poems about current basketball greats, such as Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Kidd, and Kobe Bryant. The poems are illustrated with oversized, colorized black-and-white photographs of each player caught in the moment of leaping, bounding, and dunking (O'Neal's page opens up to a triple-spread featuring an amazing life-size photo of the sole of his basketball shoe). An extremely helpful author's note at the end of the book explains the central concept of each poem: Vince Carter, in "Out of This World," is compared to "an asteroid on fire/ from the deep/ deep reaches of space;" Stephon Marbury is likened to the Coney Island Cyclone ride; painting imagery is used to describe Kobe Bryant (who paints "basketball masterpieces/ . . . on hardwood canvas/using bold brush strokes/of a bouncing ball"); Tracy McGrady's poem is built almost entirely around a central rhyme scheme based on the suffix "-ator"--innovator, captivator, statistic generator, rebound accumulator, air levitator, helicopter aviator, and so on. This energetic collection makes poetry cool, fun, and eminently accessible to young sports fans: a slam dunk! 2004, Candlewick, Ages 8 up, $14.99. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763614232

Hoop Queens: Poems
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   Poet/photographer Charles Smith, Jr., will surely score big with sports-loving youngsters. His rap-influenced poems in Hoop Queens capture the on-the-court style and personalities of twelve female professional basketball players. In "Fire Starter," "Chamique Holdsclaw sparks flame/into white-hot game;/a wildfire spreading/that can't be contained." The opening lines of "Bounce to This" describe Dawn Stanley: "Braids bounce on break/as ball bounces on shake." Smith's own style is marked by alliteration and rhyme and all the verve and energy of a basketball game. Poem notes at the end provide short prose descriptions of these female champs, with photographs throughout revealing their strength and determination under game pressure. 2003, Candlewick, Ages 8 up, $14.99. Reviewer: Mary Quattlebaum (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763614225

I Am America
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   Beginning with a photograph of the American flag, this poem and photo collection tells the story of the lives of American children and explores the differences and similarities between American children in a fun, lighthearted way: "I am almond eyes/I am a proud nose/I am cheeks freckled the color of a rose/ I am jet-black hair/I am olive skin/I am my grandfather's dimples framing my grin." The poem continues to list various musical preferences: "I am hip-hop/I am grunge rock and roll," while lines such as "I am ice-cream smiles/I am lollipop licks" illustrate American children's similar tastes. Smith also reminds the reader of the wide variety of ethnicities and religions among America's children: "I am Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish/I am Asian, Italian, Indian, Irish." Each line is illustrated with photographs designed to highlight the similarities among all children such as silly grins, funny faces, and a preference for blue jeans. These features make this book an excellent tool for introducing elementary school-aged children to diversity. 2003, Scholastic, Ages 4 to 8, $14.95. Reviewer: Christi Conti (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780439431798

Let's Play Baseball!
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Terry Widener
   A young boy's baseball is calling to him, "It's me…your baseball. Whaddya say?" The scenes that follow show the boy walking along the sidewalk tossing his baseball with an oversized mitt. Then he rounds up a group of friends for some warm ups--catching, pitching and hitting--until he blasts a really big one into the blue sky. He hits the ball so far it takes a trip around Mars! The ending seems a bit ambiguous: Did this fellow really go out and play with his friends or was all of this imagined? It may not matter to kids who will just enjoy the possibility of getting outside for a pick-up game. The illustrator has included girls in the play, which send a very positive message. Part of the "Super Sturdy Picture Book" series. 2006, Candlewick Press, Ages 3 to 5, $8.99. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763616465

Perfect Harmony: A Musical Journey with the Boys Choir of Harlem
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   This colorful resource uses catchy poems and vibrant photographs to explore different musical concepts, such as tempo, rhythm, and harmony. Focusing on the Boys Choir of Harlem, this book introduces youngsters to the importance of getting focused, breathing correctly, finding the right tempos and rhythms, having a strong voice, and participating in a musical ensemble. Double-page spreads feature pastel pages with playful, spiritual poetry and close-up photos of choir members practicing and performing their music. At the end of the book, the author also includes glossaries for musical and poetic terms. After reading this wonderful musical celebration, youngsters and their parents will want to stand up and let their voices be heard. This book offers an honest, insightful look at the amazing world of music. 2002, Hyperion Books for Children, Ages 7 up, $15.99. Reviewer: Debra Briatico (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780786807581

Short Takes: Fast-break Basketball Poetry
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
   Charles Smith, Jr., has created another dynamic collection of poems about basketball in Short Takes. Like Smith's other books with a basketball focus, Rim Shots (1999) and Tall Tales (2000), both published by Dutton, Smith combines his motion-filled photographs with poems that jump, arc, dribble, and pound across each two-page spread. The photographs in the dazzling page design cannot be separated from the poems themselves--each piece is a blend of words and images. Smith's wonderful note at the end of the book comments on how he created both the visual images and the written words for this volume and will be of special interest to aspiring artists and writers. 2001, Dutton, Ages 10 up, $17.99. Reviewer: CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 2002).
ISBN: 9780525464549

Stars in the Shadows: The Negro League All-Star Game of 1934
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Frank Morrison
   Author Charles R. Smith Jr. and illustrator Frank Morrison team up to tell the dramatic story of the Negro League All-Star Game of 1934 in Chicago. Their action-packed staging depicts the giants of black baseball as they bat, steal bases and make amazing catches, but it also captures the tenor of the times, with the announcer, fans and even a barber in a nearby shop ruminating in short asides on the segregated game and unjust Jim Crow laws. This is historical fiction sure to hook the sports minded, with its patter, personalities, stats and close calls, and with Morrison's dynamic graphite pictures of fiercely focused, quick-moving players. 2012, Simon and Schuster, Ages 7 to 11, $14.99. Reviewer: Mary Quattlebaum (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780689866388

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
   Lyrical verse with the cadence of rap weaves and bops its way through the life of Muhammad Ali. In twelve glorious rounds his life is measured, from his humble beginnings as Cassius Clay, to his youthful introduction to boxing, through all his title bouts and the triumphant moment when with hands shaking from Parkinson's, Ali lifted his torch to the Olympic flame. The quintessential showman is presented here with all his bravado and stinging taunts at opponents Sonny Liston and Joe Frasier. But we are also shown a man deeply committed to his Islamic faith and one who firmly stands up for what he believes in his refusal to be a combatant in the Viet Nam war. In his celebration of the man who is a legend, the author does not shy away from writing about the two final years of Ali's career that saw back-to-back defeats, or discussing the disease that is now wracking the body of the "Prince of Pugilism." Handsome watercolors and collages are filled with energy and power and dramatically enhance this remarkable biography of a flawed man, but one still deserving to be called "the greatest." Facial expressions are strong and emotive while the athleticism of the boxer is revealed in every fight scene. Onomatopoeic words add punch and vigor. The dense verse may be intimidating at first but the persistent readers will be rewarded. Readers who have enjoyed Champion: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Jim Haskins (2002) may be ready for this. It has been named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book for 2008. 2007, Candlewick, Ages 10 up, $19.99. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780763616922

Updated 12/1/12

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