Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a darkened theater. All is quiet as the audience waits for the current to rise. As it does, a spotlight falls first on one face, then another. A voice rises from afar, slowly intoning the words of Langston Hughes’s classic poem, “My People” as a beautiful variety of people pause, then move across the stage. That’s how Charles R. Smith Jr.’s picture book interpretation of this beloved poem (published by Simon & Schuster, 2009) looks and feels.
An inky black backdrop sets the stage for each page, as sepia-toned close-up photographs of hands, faces, smiles, eyes, and bodies people each page. Blocked images of faces on the endpapers and in filmstrip-like stripes along the edges of the pages here and there add to the cinematic feel of the book. In his note at the end of the book, Smith writes that he wanted to show differing ages and shades of Black people; to show skin color “as bright as the sun and as dark as the night”… “the newness of a newborn smile and the wisdom of wrinkled skin.”
Each double-page spread features one or two or three words of the 33-word poem, in a super-big font. It helps s l o w the poem down for greater visual impact. I’ve heard author and artist Ashley Bryan recite this poem from memory many times, and I can imagine his booming voice saying these words as I turn the pages.
You can find the complete text of the poem in several places, including here and an audio recording read by Langston Hughes himself produced by Caedmon Audio and in the Random House “Voice of the Poet” audio series.
When my children were very young they LOVED close up photographs of babies and big images of faces. I even created simple photo-illustrated “board” books of faces for them (including their own faces) before these kinds of books were readily available. The illustrator, Charles R. Smith, Jr. has an excellent page of kid-friendly activities for experimenting with photography on his information-rich Web site, too. As a side note, check out his photo-interpretation of the classic Kipling poem, If, also in picture book form (and also a Ginee Seo Book; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2007).
I can see kids using the book as a kind of script for performing the poem, focusing on faces and simple movements. I can see kids creating a mural of faces and words combined to reinterpret the poem. I can see kids choosing other Langston Hughes poems, such as “I, Too” or any of the “Dream” poems to interpret visually through photographs or collages creating their own original picture books. What an inspiring and elegant model Smith has created for this poetic “study in simplicity” reminding us that Black people—indeed ALL people—come in “all shapes, sizes, shades, and ages.”
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Image credit: http://www.charlesrsmithjr.com/