Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Q&A with Charles R. Smith Jr.




Charles R. Smith Jr. is the author of the new children's picture book biography Bessie the Motorcycle Queen. It focuses on motorcyclist Bessie Stringfield. Smith's many other books include Song for Jimi. Also a poet and photographer, he lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book about Bessie Stringfield, and how did you first learn about her?


A: I came across Bessie's story a few years ago when I saw a YouTube video on her that was no more than two minutes. But in that two minutes I was captivated by the story of this young Black girl riding her motorcycle across the country during the 1920s.


For any young girl to do that alone was pretty courageous, but add to the fact that she was also Black and doing it during a time of racial segregation made me really want to tell her story. 


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “As Smith notes, biographical information on Stringfield is scant, as little has been written about her, but the author’s note and the brief bibliography will help curious readers learn more, including her love of telling a good yarn.” How did you research her life?


A: Try as I might, there just wasn't much information to be found about Bessie. She had told her life story to one woman in particular for a book on women and motorcycles to motorcycle-riding journalist Ann Ferrar, so I mostly used that.


But as time passed, I found out more about Bessie, including a posthumous obituary that The New York Times did which debunked a lot of the "myth" surrounding her early life details. Many of those details were put into question, but since her story came from her own mouth, I wasn't sure what to believe. So I said as much in the back matter in the book, adding that Bessie loved telling tall tales. 


Q: What do you think Charlot Kristensen's illustrations add to the book?


A: Since Bessie's adventures took place so long ago and involved riding a motorcycle, I wanted the reader to see the beauty that she saw, in full color, as well as the dangerous conditions she had to deal with. Charlot's imagery is exactly what I envisioned; beautiful vistas, creative closeups, and a color palette that is very distinct.


Q: What do you see as Bessie Stringfield's legacy today, and what do you hope kids take away from her life story?


A: The biggest thing I want kids to take away from Bessie's story is that if you have determination to do something, you can do it, no matter the circumstance.


Yes, we're living in tough times now, but to see this young, energetic, Black woman riding a motorcycle around the country at a flip of the penny, knowing she had to deal with racism and being alone, it shows that anything is possible. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I'm working on a variety of projects, focusing on illustrating my own poems and stories with my photography. They include projects on space, sports, and even more biographical subjects. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm so excited to see Charlot get the praise she deserves for Bessie. She really did a great job on the book and I'm so happy to have a strong woman in Bessie to add to my canon of strong men bio subjects. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Charles R. Smith Jr.

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