Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
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About the Author
Sean Qualls is the Coretta Scott King Honor illustrator of Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane , by Carole Boston Weatherford. His art appears in many children's books, including Little Cloud and Lady Wind, by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, and Giant Steps to Change the World, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Mr. Qualls lives in Brooklyn, NY.
"Poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters assume, respectively, the voices of a young white girl, Irene, and young Black boy, Charles, who are paired together for a poetry project. A series of over thirty poems follows them as they deal with each other and their classmates, negotiating points of friction both racial (Irene wants to play freeze dance with Shonda and her friends, who are Black; Charles wonders why the Jesus in his church is white) and personal (Charles is a motormouth while Irene is quiet). The poems appear in tandem pairs, their speakers differentiated by font, that relate to each other thematically, sometimes illuminating the commonality of the kids' experiences and sometimes operating in complementarity. The result is an unusually candid book for pre-YA kids about race and difference, allowing for the possibility of the mistakes (the word is right in the subtitle) but also a hopeful outcome as Irene and Charles find enrichment in their friendship. Though there's a touch of historical flavor at times (the authors base the poems on their 1980s childhoods), the underlying issues remain relevant in contemporary classrooms and playgrounds. The illustrations, acrylic, colored pencil, and collage, mostly focus on figures crisply edged against white space but vary the images with complexly layered colors. The art links each pair of poems further with compositions that echo and mirror each other (in the pair of church poems, for instance, congregations are viewed both from above and behind the pews). Kids will appreciate recognition of their challenges and the value of surmounting them, and in skilled hands this could prompt some useful curricular responses. Authors and illustrators both include notes about their inspirations and intentions."--The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books--Journal
"Salt-and-pepper teams of poets, illustrators and characters offer young readers a fresh and heartwarming take on bridging the racial divide. The poems show that social interaction is the key to finding and forging common bonds. I hope that this book will spark conversations across school cafeterias where students too often self-segregate."--Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
"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."--starred, Publishers Weekly--Journal
"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."--Booklist
For a long time, maybe as long as children's books have been published in America, there has been an unspoken understanding amongst white parents that when it comes to race, the less said to children the better. White people are particularly attached to the notion that if you don't mention race, don't speak its name, don't bring it up in any way with kids, then they'll never notice race on their own and they'll grow up to become wholly unprejudiced individuals, incapable of even a single racist thought. Right. This belief persists, flying in the face of studies that have shown that kids aren't blind. One of the very first things they perceive growing up is difference. And if you don't offer guidance of any sort to them as they age, then you're allowing the world with all its messages and lessons to do the teaching for you. So children's books find themselves at a crossroads. They can either continue as they have in the past, trading in specifics for hazy ''we're all the same inside'' messages, or they can trod a new path. They can actually try their hand at confronting race head on in a format for the young. It took four people to bring us Can I Touch Your Hair? and countless others to bring it to our library and bookstore shelves. It takes only one person to buy it and show it to a kid. And it takes only one to use it as the conversation starter we've needed for so long.
Pick a partner, says the teacher. Sounds so easy, but when Irene (who is white) ends up paired with Charles (who is black) she has no idea what to feel, except nervous. Irene's quiet and Charles can talk a mile a minute. This is supposed to be a poetry assignment so the kids decide to pick topics they can both write about. You know. Shoes, hair, school, church, that kind of stuff. And at first their poems just reflect their differences. But as time goes on they see that they have so much more in common than they initially suspected. Lots of things are still unknown to them. ''Sometimes we say the wrong thing, sometimes we misunderstand. Now we listen, we ask questions.'' Because you can't know what you don't know until you dig down deep.
As I mentioned, the book was created by four people. Two wrote the words and two did the art. The Authors' Note in the back of the book tells how Irene asked Charles to be a ''writing partner in a conversation about race'' initially and how the book bloomed from there. There's an Illustrators' Note at the back as well, talking about how the book should ''ignite conversations about race and identity.'' You've heard the old phrase about too many cooks in the kitchen, but in this case everyone involved appears to have had a role to play. This naturally led me to wonder if Irene and Selina wrote and illustrated the character of Irene while Charles and Sean separately tackled Charles the boy. I don't think that's how it played out in the end, but I can't find any interviews here or online that clarify their process. I think in this case I'll take a cue from something that does appear in the Illustrators' Note where Sean and Selina waxed poetic over how, ''Mixing together materials mirrors our philosophy of mixing together our cultures.'' Like any picture book, this one is words and pictures mixed together into a single cohesive whole. It's art. Mixing is what you have to do.
One challenge the authors faced with this book came in the creation of the characters of Irene and Charles. It's so interesting that they decided to name the kids in the book after themselves. I wonder if it gave them, as writers, a connection to the material they couldn't have found otherwise. Certainly, for all that the book is written in verse, there is a depth to the kids and their lives you wouldn't necessarily expect from poetry. Take Irene. She has a pretty good family, but even her dad is prone to outbursts of anger from time to time. Charles, for his part, is wrestling with complex issues he feels ill-equipped to handle. If cops hurt people that look like him, how does that gel with his understanding of one particular cop that he likes? I like that this book is perfectly willing to raise difficult questions without feeling a need to offer up some kind of easy answers. Sometimes a question has to remain a question to do its job right.
Speaking of questions, you might legitimately ask about the book whether or not it quite lives up to its title. I think we can all agree that it's one of the best titles of a work of poetry that we've seen in years. I was reminded of adult books like Phoebe Robinson's You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. So is this a version of Robinson's book, just siphoned down to something appropriate for the elementary school set? Not exactly, but it is attempting to speak to the same underlying issues. Heck, if this book can prevent just one white kid from asking a black kid, "Can I touch your hair?" it may be worth the cover price alone.
I admire this book deeply not least because there were a couple moments that made me, a grown woman, stop and think. One moment came when Irene saw the black girls playing freeze dance and wanted to join in. After a while one of the girls comes up to Irene and says, ''You've got the whole rest of the playground . . . Can't we at least have this corner?'' It put me in a mind to recollect a book by Beverly Daniel Tatum called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race. The thing that's interesting to me about the line as it's written is that the girl (Shonda) says ''at least''. She and her friends are making a space for themselves and who can blame them if they don't want Irene barging in? The book makes Irene the sympathetic one in the scene, but I think there's room here for a discussion with kids about whether or not Shonda and her friends are wrong to want a place where they don't have to be ''on''. Later Irene and Shonda make up (and I'm not sure I buy how that comes about) but that early interaction stands out for me.
For a long time the idea of writing a book about ''diversity'' was an exercise in being maudlin. Let me describe an average picture book for you. There is a kid. They are prejudiced in some way. Then with the help of a bunch of friends of different races, religions and/or abilities they are able to see that ''we're all the same under our skin''. You've seen this book. You've probably seen loads of them, with some slight variations one way or another. What's interesting to me is that books of this sort find safety in being vague on specifics. I'm a child of the 80s and I grew up with these books, so I saw them all the time. You know what I didn't see? I never saw a single solitary book that took this message but applied it to black and white kids with the aim of showing the problems, the real problems, that kids are facing. I'm not saying these books don't exist. They're out there if you look for them (like the harrowing Whitewash by Ntozake Shange, for example). But a book like that, or like Can I Touch Your Hair? is a drop in the ocean when compared to the countless titles that want to promote difference without ever being different themselves. Given the chance, I suggest you try something a little bit different. Try this book. Just be prepared to answer some hard and necessary questions from kids along the way.
On shelves now.
"In tantalizing free verse poems, Irene Latham and Charles Waters reimagine themselves as fifth-grade strangers, then classmates, and finally friends. Can I Touch Your Hair? is a compelling portrait of two youngsters dancing delicately through a racial minefield."--J. Patrick Lewis, former US Children's Poet Laureate--Other Print
"These poems explore diversity with refreshing honesty and complexity--and truly capture the personalities and voices of these two rising stars of poetry."--Janet Wong, author and co-creator of The Poetry Friday Anthology series--Other Print
Synopsis: ''How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth grade poetry project? They don't know each other . . . and they're not sure they want to.
Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners. Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (of The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage), this remarkable collaboration invites readers of all ages to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences.'' (Taken from Goodreads)
Review: I was really excited to read this book after I heard how the authors wrote this book - by sending poetry back and forth over email. And what I really found interesting was that this book not only has two authors, but also has two illustrators, both who I admire for their mixed media and collage style. But, I'll admit what really drew me to this book was the title. My partner has locs that reach all the way down his back to his waist and on more than one occasion he's dealt with people walking up to him and touching his hair (very similarly to when people touch a pregnant woman's belly) without asking. He's an extrovert and journalist, so he's able to take control of the situation pretty quickly, but I find it remarkable how invasive people feel they can be (especially complete strangers).
Another example, my aunt has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and is also nonverbal and even as young kid, I'd recognize the pointed stares of others kids while on vacation or just walking around the mall. I can remember once instance while on the metro in DC and my mom telling a child (who was staring) ''She has a disability which is why she can't walk and uses a wheelchair to get around.'' I honestly don't remember the child's reaction, but in my head that was the best way to handle the situation - acknowledge the difference, explain the accommodation and move on. Granted, this acknowledgement can get old if it's done over and over again during a person's life, but that brings up the point of how else will a child learn?
Parents and other adults in a child's life can provide context for teaching kids about similarities and differences in the world and books are a great way to start a conversation. I think this is an amazing title to share with kids who want to learn more about people who are different from themselves. For a long time, parents have tried the approach, ''We don't see color.'' Well, people are different colors, different cultures, different abilities, etc. and if kids don't have conversations with the adults in their world about these differences, how can we expect them to accept them and understand them? Most kids I know may have a few questions, but once they learn, they're pretty accepting of differences. This was a really interesting book and one that is definitely geared toward the older elementary school and middle school student - one that would be a great book to share a poem or two to start a conversation and maybe a poetry project as well.
"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."--starred, Kirkus Reviews--Journal
"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's 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."--The Horn Book Magazine