Slam Dunk | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Slam Dunk 

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He developed the text from notebooks he’d kept while shooting the photos—nicknames, taunts, snatches of dialogue—and his own memories. The first poem, “I Remember,” uses the title phrase 23 times; the typography punches the words in Lakers purple and yellow. Rimshots’ photos are printed in sepia tone—“something you don’t see in kids’ books at all,” Smith notes.

Twenty years and 20 books later, he chose sepia again for My People.
Langston Hughes’ 1923 poem is a mere 33 words:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
In an afterword, Smith asks, “How do you translate words into pictures?” and describes how he looked to

Hughes’s “study in simplicity” for answers. “To me, the words celebrate black people of differing shades and age, so I wanted to show skin color as bright as the sun and as dark as the night; I wanted to show the newness of a newborn smile and the wisdom of wrinkled skin.”

Three generations participated in My People—Smith photographed his daughter and two sons (“I’ve always got three free models”), and the dedication includes a snapshot of “Charles R. Smith, the original” in his sailor uniform. Other models included friends, neighbors, and workout buddies from Gold’s Gym in Poughkeepsie. Smith’s wife Gillian, a former retail manager who now works full-time with her husband, was born there, and when she was expecting their second child, the Smiths left their Brooklyn apartment and bathtub darkroom behind. “We love the Hudson Valley,” says Smith, who seems to leave it more often than he’d like. Last week he flew home from Chicago, coached his son’s Little League game, then drove three and a half hours to another school visit in Morrisville, New York.

He aims to give writing students “confidence and courage.” “We all have so much in our heads all the time, we don’t know what to write down,” he says. “I try to make a direct connection—whatever pops into your head, write it. Once it’s on paper, you have something to work with. Kids are afraid to create. Even kids who like to write are afraid of doing it wrong.”

A few years ago, Smith took his own advice. After completing Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali (Candlewick, 2007), his longest text to date, he “wanted to keep it going, see if I could write a novel.” He unearthed a story fragment about four teenage boys in his LA neighborhood and sent it to his agent, who urged him to finish it. Smith sat down and wrote the first draft of Chameleon (Candlewick, 2008), proudly telling himself, “I did it, that’s done.”

As imposing as writing a young adult novel sounded at first, he found prose easier than poetry. “Verse is like writing in another language,” he explains. “There’s rhyme, certain rhythms, a certain pace. It can’t be too long for a picture book—there are very specific parameters. With fiction, you can write whatever you want.”
Like Chameleon’s 14-year-old hero, Shawn, Smith went to school in gritty, gang-riddled Compton while living in Carson. But while Smith has a younger sister and stayed with his grandmother after school, only-child Shawn must caretake an alcoholic aunt and make a fate-altering choice. In spite of these fictional glosses, Shawn feels very much like a portrait of the artist as a young man. Though it’s Smith’s only book without illustrations, Chameleon’s images reveal a photographer’s sense of composition. Here are Shawn and his friends after a hot summer’s pickup game:

“The five of us took over a couple of benches and stretched our exhausted bodies. Lorenzo sprawled on his back as usual while Trent sat on top of the same bench next to him. Andre and Randy took over another bench, spreading their wings like wings and extending their legs like landing gear. I stretched my limbs across the cushy green grass in front of both benches and exhaled; that last game wiped me out.”
Smith’s current projects include a biography of Jimi Hendrix and I Am the World, a follow-up to I Am America (Cartwheel, 2003), a book he was inspired to do after a girl at one of his presentations put her head in her arms and groaned, “Sports again?”

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