Poetry for Children
Can I Touch Your Hair?
Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
Co-written with Charles Waters
Illustrations by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
"A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication...a brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America." |
"The poems delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships."
- Publisher's Weekly
"Young readers searching for means to have difficult, emotional, and engaged discussions about race will find an enlightening resource in Irene and Charles’ explorations."
A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication. In an unusual, long-distance collaboration, poets Latham and Waters have crafted a collection of poems that explore the intersection between race and childhood friendships. Each poet reveals his or her individual perspective on shared experiences by imagining their childhood selves existing in the current day of complex racial realities. Their interactions, expressed through poetic verse, navigate the ambiguous and often challenging feelings that children encounter as they grapple with identity and race—a process forced on them when they are paired for a classroom poetry project. The story takes readers through school days, interludes with concerned parents, and polarizing peer interactions. In one scene, young Irene, who is white, feels ostracized when she isn't invited to play freeze dance with the black girls on the playground. At the beach, young Charles, who is black, is teased by white kids who wear dreadlocks and cornrows, appropriating the culture of black people, while bullying and spewing hate toward Charles. In between the uncomfortable moments are lighter, universal childhood scenarios, as when Charles asserts his choice to be vegan at a traditional soul-food dinner or when Irene describes the solace she finds in her love of horses. Interracial couple Qualls and Alko contribute graceful illustrations that give the feelings expressed visual form. A brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America. (Picture book/poetry. 8-12)
When they can’t find partners quick enough, Charles and Irene get stuck working together on their poetry project. To Irene, Charles is too opinionated. To Charles, Irene is mousy and dull. They are too different, especially since Irene is white and Charles is black. In mirrored verses, the pair discover their similarities and respectfully examine their differences—covering topics as mundane as buying shoes, and as topical as police brutality, corporal punishment, and white guilt. Latham and Waters see this work as a conversation between their fictional, young poet doppelgängers, meant to heal divides and start conversations. Similarly, the art is a collaboration between a husband-and-wife team, that blends collage, colored pencils, and acrylic paint into dreamy abstractions that feature a motif of word flowers blooming across pages where Irene and Charles finally seem to connect. Young readers searching for means to have difficult, emotional, and engaged discussions about race will find an enlightening resource in Irene and Charles’ explorations.
— Courtney Jones
Two classmates—serving as stand-ins for poets Latham and Waters—reluctantly pair up on a poetry-writing project and reflect on their identities, relationships, and the role race plays in their lives, in more than 30 candid, thought-provoking poems. The students aren’t initially close (“She hardly says anything. Plus, she’s white,” thinks talkative Charles after being assigned to work with Irene), but that soon changes. The children’s passions and preoccupations are revealed in poems that explore topics in parallel—new shoes, dinnertime, parental punishments, and police violence, among them—and the racial divisions of the children’s churches, communities, and school become clear, too. “I smile when Shonda/ comes over, but she doesn’t/ smile back,” writes Irene. “You’ve got/ the whole rest of the playground,/ she says. Can’t we/ at least have this corner?” Qualls and Alko (Why Am I Me?) play into the moody, reflective atmosphere in mixed-media collages whose teardrop/budding leaf motif underscores the way that conversation can lead to growth. The poems delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships. Ages 8–12. Authors’ agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. Illustrators’ agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Jan.)
Horn Book Magazine
This clever book of poetry is about finding an unlikely friend. Classmates Irene and Charles (also the names of this book’s coauthors) are paired together for a poetry writing project. Irene is white and, according to Charles, “hardly says anything.” Charles, whose “mouth is like a race car / that never stops to refuel,” is black. Each spread contains poems from both of their perspectives, with Irene’s poem on one side of the page and Charles’s on the other. The children write about topics such as shoes, hair, school, and church. As they get to know each other better, the poems traverse even trickier areas, such as slavery and contemporary police violence against African Americans. Irene and Charles also bond over the difficulties of making friends and a love of reading; the poem “Author Visit” is about their excitement upon meeting one of their favorite writers, Nikki Grimes. The illustrations are in acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, and range from ordinary classroom scenes to spare, dramatic images to double-page spreads that visually connect Irene’s and Charles’ experiences into one, showing their similarities. Qualls and Alko’s layering of print newspaper clippings over paint begs readers to take a closer look. Appended authors’ and illustrators’ notes provide more information about the book’s background and development. This volume would make an excellent read-aloud or a launch pad for collaborative classroom writing.
- Julie Hakim Azzam
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