Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko, 40pp, RL 3
Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
Why Read? Why Buy?: This book is so unique and special, important and timely, both in content and creation. Authors Latham, who is white, and Waters, who is black, collaborated long-distance on this book, deciding to write about what it would be like if their fifth-grade selves met today in a, "suburban school with a 60 percent white and 40 percent minority population." Drawing from individual childhood experiences and adult perspectives on race, the poems reflect their, "truest and most honest emotions and recollections about our experiences related to race. Like the speakers in this book, during this poetry project, we experienced fear, but we were open; we made missteps, yet we stumbled forward; and we learned things, and it changed us. We hope you will find the courage in these pages to have your own conversations about race."
Artists and authors Alko and Qualls, an interracial couple, share in their Illustrators' Note that they connected with the poems right away, imagining themselves, "in our own childhood classrooms, asking some of the same questions and having many of the same complicated feelings. Both separately and together, we revisited some of the hurts, alienations, curiosities, and hopes we remember feeling as children."
Together, this creative quartet has given us a book that is invaluable and essential in every classroom.
Story: When Mrs. Vandenberg tells the class to pick a partner for the Poem Project they are about to embark on, Irene and Charles are the last two left to partner up. And neither are very happy about it. Irene is worried about, "you-never-know-what-he's-going-to-say" Charles and the fact that he is black and she is white. And Charles, who knows that writing is his superpower, is worried about Irene because she never says anything. And because she is white. The two agree to write poems about shoes and then hair, going to church and the beach. As their poems pile up, readers learn more about each child and each child learns about the other, exploring teasing, ostracizing and bullying by white boys with dreadlocks who spout hate towards Charles while at the same time appropriating black culture. As the book comes to a close, Irene and Charles are more confident in their friendship and poetry, and excited for an author visit by Nikki Grimes. Mrs. Vandenberg even introduces them to Ms. Grimes as two of her biggest fans. The two finish with a poem written together, titled, "Dear Mrs. Vandenberg,"
Here we are, still getting used to each other, our sideways glances
turning into high-fives and hanging out together during quiet time.
We smile when we learn we both like books, but not sports.
We nod our heads over cool shoes and colorful laces.
Now we see each other as individuals - vegans, horseback riders, readers.
We share hurts like being left out at recess and getting into trouble with our parents.
Sometimes we say the wrong thing, sometimes we misunderstand.
Now we listen, we ask questions. We are so much more than black and white!
P.S. Hey, Mrs. Vandenberg, what's our next writing project going to be?
Pictures: Alko and Qualls' collage-paint style of illustration fits perfectly on the page with the poems, which take turns alternating between Irene and Charles. Occasionally, a two-page illustration will bring Irene and Charles together in the same experience, two poems providing different perspectives.