Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship


Carolrhoda Books: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Carolrhoda Books: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Carolrhoda Books: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Carolrhoda Books: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

by Charles Waters, Irene Latham, illus. by Sean Qualls, Selina Alko

"When our teacher says,/ Pick a partner,/ my body freezes/ like a ship in ice." Irene wants to partner with Patty Jean for Mrs. Vandenberg's poem project but Madison has already claimed her. "Within seconds,/ you-never-know-what-/ he's-going-to-say Charles/ is the only one left" and Irene is paired with him.

"Mrs. Vandenberg wants us to write poems?/ Finally, an easy project," Charles thinks, "Words fly off my pen/ onto the paper, like writing is my super power." When not writing, though, his "words are a curse": "I open my mouth,/ and people run away." Despite his excitement for the project, Charles really doesn't want to work with Irene. "Write about anything!" Mrs. Vandenberg said, "It's not black and white." But for Irene and Charles "it is./ Charles is black,/ and [Irene] is white."

The two children approach each other hesitantly. "What do you want to/ write about?" Charles asks Irene. She only shrugs. Charles continues valiantly on. "How about our shoes, hair?/ Then we can write about school and church?" Irene "takes a deep breath. 'Okay.' "

In their first collaborative efforts, the two children write about their shoes. Irene wants ruby shoes with heels to click her to "another land" or "glass slippers/ to make a dancer" out of her. Unfortunately, her mother thinks shoes should be sensible. Charles also wants exciting shoes: "neon high-tops/ with tie-dye laces," but his dad thinks shoes should be comfortable, not fashionable.

The two children continue the writing project, going back and forth covering church, the beach, horseback riding, the playground, fresh starts and more. In "Hair," Irene writes that her hair is "long and straight--/ a curtain I can hide/ behind." Charles remembers a situation in "Strands" in which a white classmate, Dennis, asked, "Can I touch your hair?" Before getting a response, Dennis patted Charles on the head: "It feels like a sponge," he said. Angry, Charles retorted, "You need to learn to wait/ for an answer after asking permission." Charles then patted Dennis's hair, "hard." "Your hair feels like a mop," Charles said, fists at the ready.

In Irene's "Church," "everyone is white"; at Charles's "Sunday Service," "everyone's brown arms are raised in devotion." Everyone's arms, that is, but Charles's.

"If it says in the Bible that Jesus
had hair like wool, eyes that were a flame of fire,
and feet like brass as if they burned in a furnace,
then why is everyone praising the straight-haired,
blue-eyed white man I see looking down over all of us?"

Each spread includes an illustration and one of the children's poems, with distinct fonts for each child, visually marking the difference between the two narrators. While the poems slowly build to depict the shared emotions of the two children and their developing friendship, some stand out as particularly heartbreaking. In "Beach Day," Charles writes,

"There's a pack of guys and girls, whose pearly skins
have been baked into a bronzed hue, strolling past me.
Each of them has hair woven into cornrows
or twisted into dreadlocks....
When I wave, they look at each other, begin snorting,
laughing at my good manners....
I'm confused: why do people who
want to look like me hate me so much?"

In "The Athlete," Charles points out the quiet racism he lives with every day: picked first for sports, even though he's not particularly athletic; chosen last to read out loud, even though he loves words. On the playground, Irene goes "to the spot by the fence/ where the black girls/ play freeze dance," hoping Shonda will ask her to play. "You've got/ the whole rest of the playground," Shonda says, "Can't we/ at least have this corner?"

The children's lives flow through their poetry, touching on big ideas that are everyday struggles. Charles finds it difficult to explain to his grandparents why he's gone vegan, why he won't eat "soul food" any longer; Irene hides "behind the door" after her "Mama pulls the paddle/ from the top of the fridge" to discipline her little brothers. Charles watches the news and sees "people who/ could pass as [his] family being choked, pummeled, shot, killed/ by police officers." Irene explains "Why Aunt Sarah Doesn't Go Downtown after Dark": "sky/ black/ streets/ black/ faces/ black/ fear/ white."

Charles and Irene's story, according to the collaborative authors' note, is that of the adult authors' if they "had met in a current-day fifth-grade classroom in a suburban school with a 60 percent white and 40 percent minority population." The "spirit" of each poem is based on their real-life experiences growing up in the 1980s, and, "whether real or imagined," the poems reflect their "truest and most honest emotions and recollections" about their own experiences related to race.

Like both the fictional and real white Irene and black Charles working together on poems, Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (a couple of almost two decades) collaborated on the illustrations in the work. Using acrylic paint, colored pencil and collage, they mixed materials together to mirror their "philosophy of mixing together [their] cultures." And as Irene's and Charles's poems speak to and with each other, building experiences and new bonds, the illustrations speak with the text, building relationships with the reader. The illustrations and text are balanced, layered and nuanced, allowing the child protagonists (and readers) the chance to sit with and make sense of race and our society's long history of inequality. Can I Touch Your Hair? is a beautifully direct yet somehow outstandingly subtle work that will allow young readers to navigate and understand their places in their communities and the greater world. --Siân Gaetano

Carolrhoda Books, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 8-12, 9781512404425

Carolrhoda Books: Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko


Authors and Illustrators on Race and Collaboration

Irene Latham
Charles Waters
Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Irene Latham and Charles Waters were sort of friends when they began writing Can I Touch Your Hair? (Carolrhoda/Lerner Publishing Group, January 1, 2018) together. Now, after many e-mails and texts (and the occasional phone call), they are friends for life. They believe poetry can start conversations and change lives. With a little courage and understanding, together we can make the world a better place.

Sean Qualls and Selina Alko have collaborated on The Case for Loving as well as Why Am I Me?. Sean has illustrated a number of acclaimed children's books, including Emmanuel's Dream and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, for which he won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Selina is the author and illustrator of more than a dozen books for children, including Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama and B Is for Brooklyn. They live in Brooklyn, N.Y., with their two children, Isaiah and Ginger.

What made you interested in this project?

Irene: I live in Birmingham, Ala., where probably the worst thing you can say about a white person is that they are racist. What happens is, white people don't talk about race or racism. It's too dangerous. What if we say the wrong thing? Or worse, what if we really are racist? I can't think of a more important issue, or a simpler way to improve the world than to talk about race and racism--to listen, to choose not to be offended, to make mistakes, to at least try.

Charles: In my opinion, this is one of, if not the most central issue facing our nation today. How we talk about race; how to not be afraid of having hard, heartfelt, respectful conversations about how it affects us, both in the giving or receiving of it; how over-the-top racism can be as hurtful as subtle racism. How can we can go to the heart of the matter on the three C's--color, culture, class--and emerge with our humanity intact?

Selina & Sean: We had a visceral reaction to the manuscript; immediately we could imagine our childhood selves in Charles and Irene.

Was your work done as a collaborative effort?

Charles: Yes. Irene and I would pick general topics and write different versions of poems and send them back and forth to each other. Sometimes, we'd edit each other's poems. That took our trust to a whole new level. It's one thing to write pleasant e-mails to each other, but when you start rewriting another person's poems, that's a whole other row to plow.

Irene: This was my first adventure in collaboration, and I loved working with Charles. We shared powerful memories and connected on a vulnerable, human level. It was an intense experience, and we had the first draft completed in about three weeks.

Selina & Sean: Yes. We never work on the same piece at the exact same time. We usually spend the most time figuring out our characters in the beginning and then divide and conquer from there. When we work, it is always a back and forth.

Do you have a favorite part of the book? Or did you have a favorite part of working on the book?

Charles: My favorite part of working on the book was working with Irene and our editor Carol Hinz. Both are such strong, heartfelt humans. My favorite poem in the book is "News," written by Irene about police brutality. She did something that's so, so difficult, taking a tricky subject matter and distilling it to its bare essence with humanity.

Irene: Getting to know Charles was the best part! I have three biological brothers, two adopted ones and now Charles. As a reader, I want to feel something, and Charles's poems fill me and empty me. And then there are the illustrations! I adore "mad Charles" so much that I convinced Sean and Selina to sell me the original piece.

Selina & Sean: Our favorite part was creating a young Charles and Irene and coming up with the symbols--such as blooms of flowers and exaggerated tears--that would emphasize their issues (growth and suffering).

This picture book explores interracial communication--why did you choose to create this project for young readers?

Irene: Curious, shy, young me would have loved this book. I was fortunate in that I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, in part due to living in Saudi Arabia for two and a half years and then traveling with my family worldwide. This project gives all kids a way to celebrate diversity and provides a model for vulnerability, trust and friendship.

Charles: I am of the opinion that more of life can be soaked up as a younger person than as an adult because one is more open to their surroundings. I feel life is a great mystery but more so when I was a kid, more of a sense of wonder at the world, more mistakes that can happen and also more that can be learned.

Selina & Sean: We can remember our own fragile states of minds at that age (and we have kids similar ages now, so it's even more personal to us). We believe it's important to talk about race and identity at a young age and not brush hurts/misconceptions under the carpet.

Is there something you hope this book will do or say?

Irene & Charles: For all our differences, we both grew up in big families (each of us is one of five kids), were blessed with loving parents, went to public schools, loved to read, had and still have curious minds--which means, ultimately, we're more alike than we are different. It's our hope that this book starts all kinds of conversations about race and racism and that it brings people together in friendship, just like writing the book did for us.

Selina & Sean: We hope it will start conversations. We need to talk now more than ever.


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