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.
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.
🍴 TABLE TALK AND A YUMMY RECIPE 🍴
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. 🙂
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.
BEST AND WORST
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.
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
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
📘 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 📗
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!
🎉 BLUE CORN SOUP GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🎈
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.
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***Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.