[review + recipe + giveaway] Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Today we are doubly delighted to congratulate Poetry Friday friends Irene Latham and Charles Waters on their brand new poetry picture book, Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship (Carolrhoda, 2018), illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.


Irene and Charles met in person for the first time at last November’s AASL Conference in Phoenix, AZ.


Officially released January 1st, this timely collection of 33 free verse poems explores the sensitive issues of race, racism, and identity with heart and candor.

Latham and Waters channel their fifth grade selves in alternating poems written by young “Irene,” who’s white, and young “Charles,” who’s black, two public school students working on a classroom Poetry Project together.

In the course of the narrative, we see how Irene and Charles, initially reluctant at being partners, gradually build mutual trust, sowing the seeds of a unique friendship as they discover things about each other, themselves, and the world beyond home and school.

They start out wary and hesitant; shy and quiet Irene describing Charles as “you-never-know-what-he’s-going-to-say Charles,” and gregarious Charles disappointed that he’s “stuck with Irene,” a girl who “hardly says anything . . . Plus she’s white.”

But they agree to begin with poems about shoes, hair, school, and church, recounting personal experiences and shared emotions. Both want cool but impractical shoes, for example, discovering afterwards that the sensible shoes their parents made them buy aren’t so bad after all.


Both share unpleasant experiences involving their hair. Irene’s brothers tease and call her a clown after she gets an Afro, while Charles resents a boy invading his private space by touching his hair without permission.

They also recall a keen moment of awareness while sitting in church: everything is neat, orderly, reverent in Irene’s church, but “everyone is white,” and in Charles’s church, where “Everyone’s brown arms are raised in devotion,” he wonders why people are praising “the straight-haired, blue-eyed white man I see looking down over all of us.”

Other poems examine racial misconceptions and stereotypes. In “The Athlete,” others assume because Charles is African American he’s naturally better at sports rather than reading aloud in class. In “Geography,” Irene learns that she has wrongly assumed why a particular region in the U.S. is called the “black belt.”

White privilege and cultural appropriation are also addressed: In “Playground,” Irene hopes to join in a game of freeze dance, only to be ostracized by a black girl named Shonda, “You’ve got the whole rest of the playground, she says. Can’t we at least have this corner?” And in “Beach Day,” Charles describes a group of girls and boys, “whose pearly skins have been baked into a bronzed hue,” with “hair woven into cornrows or twisted in dreadlocks,” who jeer at him when he extends a friendly wave:

I’m confused: why do people who
want to look like me hate me so much?

Meanness and hurt come from and are experienced by both sides. As is typical with this incident and another where Charles’s supposed friends deride him in public to impress others, group dynamics and peer pressure come into play. Ultimately, we’re reminded that the desire to feel valued and accepted is universal; what we have in common as human beings outweighs our perceived differences.

Perhaps the most heart wrenching poems are those about police brutality. In “Office Brassard,” Charles sees “people who could pass as my family being choked, pummeled, shot, killed by police officers,” then recalls an incident where a white police officer helped him when his sneakers got caught in a chain-link fence. The officer was kind and supportive, yet on the news Charles sees cruel, unjust acts committed by white policemen.

In “News,” Irene’s father helps her to understand the bad news on TV about Ferguson, Missouri. These sobering realities are difficult to process, but sharing their feelings reassures Charles and Irene that they are not alone in their fear, confusion, and sadness.

These poems effectively illustrate how racism can be blatant and violent or reside in the nuanced fabric of the subconscious. Prejudices are learned early on, affecting the choices we make and how we behave in our everyday interactions. Hence the importance of communication — having frank discussions to foster empathy and understanding. In this heartfully crafted poetic conversation, we see mistakes, misunderstandings and missteps, but we also see the power of apology and forgiveness.

With Irene and Charles, a new friendship is a happy by-product, as along with their hurts and concerns, they’re able to bond over their love of books, music, “cool shoes and colorful laces.” Most important, they, along with the readers of this book, are given the chance to see beyond “black and white.” What a world of difference when you’re able to really see another person for the complex individual he or she is, with passions, sorrows, and epiphanies just like yours!

Award-winning illustrators and interracial couple Sean Qualls and Selina Alko capture the various tones and tenors of the poems with their engaging and evocative mixed media illustrations. Their use of acrylic paint, colored pencil and collage mirrors their philosophy of mixing together their cultures. I love how Irene’s and Charles’s character growth and blossoming friendship are underscored with the use of a budding leaf/flower petals motif. Fanciful thought bubbles illuminate Irene’s moods, while a final spread celebrates the joyous sharing of their interests with floating musical notes, horseshoes, veggies, and shoes.

Race relations is currently at the center of our national discourse, and Can I Touch Your Hair? is the perfect way to get young people talking. Readers will like knowing that in real life, Irene and Charles first “met” each other online through Poetry Friday, and much like young Irene and Charles in the book, got to know each other better by writing and exchanging these poems.

Both Irene and Charles grew up and attended public schools in the 80’s. For these poems, they imagined what it would have been like if they had met in a current day fifth grade classroom at a school with a 60% white and 40% minority population.

In their Authors’ Note, Irene and Charles assure us that “the poems reflect our truest and most honest emotions and recollections about our experiences related to race.” Writing this book has made them forever friends, and it’s their hope others will want to carry on this very important discussion.

Can I Touch Your Hair?  belongs in every  classroom and library. Change can only come about when we find the courage to be vulnerable and open minded enough to truly listen to other points of view. It’s more crucial than ever that we all start talking.



Today I’m spotlighting a pair of poems in which young Charles and Irene reveal more about themselves and learn about each other’s families. It made me wonder how many of today’s families sit down to a leisurely dinner together every night, sharing their news and concerns.

A big thanks to Charles and Irene for the backstories of their poems, and an extra thanks to Charles for the vegan recipe. 🙂


(by Charles)

Grandma and Grandpa are visiting, so our
dining room table is filled with soul food:
crispy fried chicken coated in seasoning,
gooey, creamy, baked macaroni and cheese,
collard greens mixed with chunks of ham hock,
red velvet cake smeared in cream cheese icing.
But I can’t eat any of this. A few weeks ago I
became a vegan, which means no meat or dairy foods for me.
Mom brings out my plate filled with beans, rice, and
pumpkin, I sprinkle Himalayan sea salt and chili pepper on top.
“I don’t understand this,” Dad says, “Soul food is our history.”
I clamp my teeth down to hold back everything
I want to say about how soul food leads to cancer and diabetes.
How unfair that trillions of animals get killed every year for food and clothing!
Instead, I swallow hard and say nothing.
Everybody gazes at the food, silent. Dad shakes his head.
Grandma turns away from the family,
smiles, then gives me a wink
as we begin to say grace.


(by Irene)

Each night we go around
the supper table, say
the best part of our day
and the worst.
Bests are easy
as creamed potatoes:
an A on my math test,
Pajama Day, new shoes.
Worsts stick in my throat
like tiny fish bones:
the bracelet I lost and still
can’t find, my sniffly nose,
what Shonda said at recess.
But saying it out loud helps.
We listen and laugh.
After supper we all
play a trivia game,
and once I even win.



When it came to the topic of “Food” I knew right away I wanted to write a poem about family dinner — or supper, as we call it here in the south. Family supper was very important to my mother, and it’s because of her that we were able to pull it off as we often did — no easy feat for a family with five kids! We always began our supper with all of us holding hands while someone said a prayer. The “best and worst,” however, was not something from my childhood, but from my life as a parent. Just like my mom, I worked hard to make family suppers happen. Just like in the poem, one of our traditions for a while was to go around the table and report our best and worst from the day. My insides get all cozy remembering the connectedness we shared at the supper table with our three sons.



“Dinner Conversation” went through many drafts before arriving where it did. While I wasn’t vegan as a child, as with most families, sometimes conversations about a wide swath of subjects would get uncomfortable or heated. I took those feelings, added veganism to it and after a fair number of rewrites, wallah, this poem appears. 
Years ago, friends of mine talked about veganism to me. I saw a few documentaries. I thought the plant based food they served me was good, however, it didn’t really interest me. They did send me more plant based foods, I ate it, it was good, but I still proudly ate meat and consumed dairy. 
It wasn’t until about a year later that friends of theirs, who happened to be vegan, became friends of mine, they invited me over, we had some tasty plant based grub and saw a documentary. Afterward they asked me if I had missed any meat or dairy in the meal I had, I was honest, I didn’t. That got the ball rolling. When I moved to NYC I fell off the wagon, so to speak, and consumed meat and dairy. It didn’t taste as good as before, plus my body went into constant tumult. 
When I took NYC seminars in veganism a few months later I realized it was about ethics. Non-human animals don’t want to die; we consume them anyway.  The planet is in a constant fever and a way to help this is to not consume them. After a while I stopped wearing clothes that were made of animals as well. It’s been a slow and steady process, however now, I couldn’t go back because I know too much. I’m unable to now unsee the slaughter of these creatures.
I have no interest in being a non-human animal parent. I’m allergic to cats and certain breed of dogs. Shucks, I’m allergic to many residents of the animal kingdom. I did visit an animal shelter once, played with lambs, pigs, cows. I looked those animals in the eye and the last thing I would do would be to eat them or wear them. Hence, veganism.    


The recipe Charles is sharing with us today was created by his friend Nicole D’Angelo, who’s a writer, blogger, yoga and meditation teacher based in NYC. These “cupcakes” are made solely from fruit and nuts, with no added sugar. It’s one of her most popular recipes and is great when you feel like treating yourself to something sweet (see process pics and more delicious treats at her site Forever Plant-Based).

Raw Double Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Center

  • Servings: makes 6 cupcakes
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print


For the cake:

  • 1-3/4 cups raw walnuts
  • 3 tablespoons raw cacao or carob powder
  • 5-6 pitted medjool dates

For the icing:

  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 4 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 7-8 pitted medjool dates
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract



Turn your food processor on high and keep it there while everything blends. The cake will be crumbly, slightly oily from the walnuts, but not super sticky. The goal is to have crumbly cake, not a super sticky mixture that we make for pie crusts. So, start with 5 or 6 medjool dates and taste your cake. If you need more sweetness, add another date, but too many dates will make the cake too sticky. Transfer the cake to another dish to free up your food processor so that you can make the icing.


Process ingredients on high, don’t add any liquids, you want a thick icing. Taste and add another date or two if you need more sweetness. The icing will be super thick and a very dark chocolate.

~ recipe by Nicole D’Angelo of Forever Plant-Based, as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.



CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? : Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
published by Carolrhoda Books, January 2018
Poetry for Children in grades 3-6, 40 pp.
**Starred Reviews** from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly

♥ Irene Latham’s Official Website and blog, Live Your Poem

♥ Charles Waters’s Official Website and Blog

♥ Q&A with Irene and Charles

♥ Can I Touch Your Hair? Teacher’s Guide



The publisher is generously donating a copy of Can I Touch Your Hair? for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Wednesday,  February 7, 2018. You may also enter by sending an email with HAIR in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!



A big thank you to all who entered last week’s giveaway. Reading about your favorite soups made me very hungry. Split pea seemed to be quite popular. 🙂

We are pleased to announce that the person who’ll be receiving a brand new copy of BLUE CORN SOUP is:


Woo-Hoo!! Congratulations, Teresa!!

Please send along your snail mail address to receive your book.


The talented and spunky Donna Smith is hosting the Roundup at Mainely Write. Zip on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Happy Weekend, Everyone!

*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2018 Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrations © 2018 Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, published by Carolrhoda Books. All rights reserved.

**This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you purchase something using a link on this site, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for your support!

***Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


63 thoughts on “[review + recipe + giveaway] Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham and Charles Waters

  1. I am astonished at the rich interview, the discussion of process, the celebration AND the recipes. What a stunning post today. I agree that this book belongs in every classroom and every library. I have it in my middle school library….but would love another copy to put into a classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours was one of the first PF posts I read about the book; I remember being so moved by it. At the time, I had the book in my possession but hadn’t read it yet. It seems so simple — just take the time to be open minded and listen to others, chip away at the ignorance and fear of the other, each honest conversation is a step in the right direction. But so many remain stubborn and willfully ignorant. I do have faith in our young people, though, and they are well guided with books like this one.


  2. I too am astonished. And touched. And very reflective. Beautifully directed through your questioning, Jama, and wonderful, honest answers from Irene and Charles. I want this book. (Not from you. I realise overseas postage is out. But just as note-to-self. 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a gorgeous book. More importantly, what a message. Adults should have to read these poems too! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jama, as always, you’ve brought your own beauty to the book you’re reviewing, and as one of its creators, I am especially blessed… Thank you! Even I hadn’t heard Charles’ whole vegan story, so thanks for that as well. Plus I love that you described Donna as “spunky.” Yes! xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks to you and Charles for writing this book for a troubled world that needs to read its message. It’s never too early to learn tolerance and acceptance. I enjoyed Charles’s vegan story, too.


  5. So much wonderful stuff to chew on here. Love the poems, love the art (big fan of Selina’s & Sean’s work), and loved hearing a bit about the background (including Charles’s progression toward veganism–I so agree about not being able to “unsee”). Thanks for sharing, Jama, and congrats to Irene and Charles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was curious about how and why he made the transition, so I’m glad he agreed to share. And I love Irene’s family tradition of dinner discussions, which she continued with her own children.


  6. This book is such a beautiful collaboration and will help kids grow in many ways–not just in how they think about race, but in how we react to each other’s personalities, and how we can work better together in teams. My hope is that people will share this book with their students who will then want to devour more of Irene’s work (as poet and novelist) and Charles’s work (in anthologies like The Poetry Friday Anthology series created by Sylvia Vardell and me). And here’s to hoping for another Latham & Waters book, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re so right about learning to accept and understand each other’s personalities and developing teamwork skills. I think in this electronic age, unfortunately some of the social and interpersonal skills are lacking, not just with kids but adults too. I also hope for another collaboration with Irene and Charles.


  7. A thoughtful review of a sensitive and groundbreaking book, Jama! No need to enter me in the giveaway, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to congratulate Irene and Charles once again on this wonderful product of their friendship, and you, for another great blog post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the book and how you’ve shared it today, Jama. With some new aspects from Irene and Charles, it is a “delicious” collaboration. My regret is that I have no students to share with, but the grand-girls now have their copy and enjoyed it too. I hope all teachers discover this wonderful book and purchase a copy for their students to read and savor, discuss and learn from. At one time in my teaching, I said things like “talk this over with your family at dinner” and slowly realized that most of my students no longer had dinner together. They ate on the way to other lessons, parents had their own meetings, etc. It was sad to me how much was missed without it. Thanks, no need to put me in the drawing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was wondering about modern day families — sorry to hear that in your experience you discovered that many families don’t have or make the time to eat dinner together. Quick microwave meals on the go, sad.


  9. You highlighted so many of the best moments of this wonderful book. I love that veganism was a topic explored here. The poem Charles wrote about his family’s reaction would have been my family’s, too. So much goodness in this post. Well done, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Charles’s poem was certainly thought-provoking — I hadn’t considered before how relatives might react to veganism. But when you think about long held traditions and cultural identity, I can see the controversy.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the most fun I’ve had with this book has been imagining ways I would have done it differently. — Not the book as a book, but I look at the characters and imagine what I would have said or done. That, I think, is the gift that this book is going to bring to kids, to allow themselves to embody both “sides” of being kid Charles and kid Irene, and make decisions about what they would have said and done, decisions that might extend to their real-life kid selves.

    Always intrigued by how people choose to become vegan, as well. I’ll have to share this recipe with my mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully discussions prompted by reading this book will include just that — thinking and re-thinking one’s own reactions and behaviors in these scenarios.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve seen this book popping up on a few blogs, and it looks so beautiful, with hard-hitting, sometimes painful discussions presented in an honest, authentic way that feels very real and representative of its child narrators. Can’t wait for it to arrive up my way.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. i can’t think of a more important book to get in schools, libraries, and homes with children given the current culture we live it. so timely.

    and as a vegan I am so psyched to see a vegan recipe here and very much could relate to Charles story.

    thanks to all for your creativity and sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Terrific post – I love all you people. Knowing about this collaboration, I couldn’t wait for Irene and Charles to finally meet in person. :0) Congrats on all the wonderful attention – well deserved!; just think of all the kids who will find or imagine themselves in these pages. (And high-fives, Charles, on the plant-based, cruelty-free life. I remember being in the vegetarian/vegan “line” with you at Highlights. Yum! My hubby’s been a vegan several years; we both became vegetarians 30 years ago now.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that pic of Irene and Charles meeting in person for the first time. 🙂 And I like imagining you and Charles bonding over your veganism at Highlights!


  14. This book sounds so lovely—and I’m already a big fan of Irene and Charles, and of their poetry! Thanks, Jama. I think I’m more likely to go vegetarian than vegan, but I really liked Charles’s story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been wanting to embrace a more plant-based diet for some time, so it’s good to hear from folks with this lifestyle. Veganism sounds more challenging to me.


  15. Usually in a poetry collection, there are many poems I love, but not all. I love every word in this wonderful book. Thanks for this lovely post. Please don’t put my name in the drawing. I already have a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, libraries and classrooms are the way to go with this book. Would be especially cool if kids who read and discuss this book at school take the discussion home to their family dinner tables too.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I HAVE TO find this book. There seems to be much much to love in this very timely novel-in-verse. Originally, I thought that it was a picturebook, until I saw the number of pages on Goodreads. You have done such an amazing job featuring this lovely title, dear Jama, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thanks for your thoughtful review of such an important book, Jama! And congrats to Irene and Charles – they created something truly special and important. (Wish I could be included in the giveaway as English language books are hard to come by here, but I will be picking up this title on our next trip to the US. =)

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Jama, you’ve created a feast for all with this post. I first thought your blog header was a Dahlov Ipcar illustration, but noticed on the sidebar that it was by Roger Duvoisin. That name didn’t sound familiar to me, so I checked out a Pinterest Board of his covers, and discovered I knew The Happy Lion and Petunia! so thanks for that connection. And your entire post is about connections, starting with Charles and Irene.

    They have collaborated on a very important book for our time. Thank you for the background, for helping us to understand how the poems came to be. It is so true that when we have opportunity to discover what we have in common, then we can accept and celebrate our differences. God bless all teachers, parents, authors, poets out there who work tirelessly to help understanding come about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found some Duvoisin books that you were familiar with. Now I have to look up Dahlov Ipcar!! Always a learning process. 🙂

      I second your blessing on all who work toward facilitating understanding between and among people!


  19. What a wonderful interview–thanks to you, Charles, and Irene! (Not sure about those cupcakes, but maybe I’ll be adventurous and give them a try. At least the frosting…)

    Liked by 1 person

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