Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Review: Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters

Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters. 40 p. Carolrhoda Books/ Lerner Publishing Group, January 1, 2018. 9781512400425. (Review from finished copy won at AASL, courtesy of publisher)

Charles and Irene are classmates in Mrs. Vandenberg's classroom. They don't particularly like each other. Charles is chatty and fidgets. Irene is quiet.  They find themselves stuck with each other as partners in a poetry project. Charles is actually looking forward to working on this project because, "Words fly off my pen 
onto the paper, like writing is my superpower." 

Charles suggests topics like shoes, hair and church. Irene writes about how she wished for an afro when she was younger; but her perm was a disaster. Charles writes about how he feels when kids try to touch his hair. They get to know each other through their shared poems but not without some mis-steps. Irene wishes that she would be invited to join a game of freeze tag the black girls are playing. Shonda confronts her with, "You've got the whole rest of the playground... Can't we at least have this corner?"

When Charles is rebuffed on the playground, he invites Irene to work on their project. Charles clearly has more to deal with than Irene, but they both take tentative steps towards friendship. 

The poems are paired on each page - one by Charles and one by Irene. They read smoothly, are accessible and a good choice to share with children to start a conversation about race - a conversation that many adults feel uncomfortable having. Pair a reading of this with Julius Lester's Let's Talk about Race, and you have two texts to help guide discussion with almost any age group, including young adults. The mixed media illustrations enhance the text. Observant readers may pay close attention to the newsprint used in the collage work. 

At AASL2017 in November, I attended a panel discussion entitled, Mirror, Mirror, Reaching All Readers, moderated by Carole Boston Weatherford. The panelists included Bill Konigsberg, Ellen Oh, Icy Smith and the two poets of this title. The authors read from their most recent work and went on to answer a series of fascinating questions posed by the moderator. I was so impressed by the discussion of Can I Touch Your Hair?, I made a note to myself to order it. Near the end of session, Waters announced that Lerner had provided several copies of Can I Touch Your Hair? to the attendees who could answer some poetry trivia questions. I was able to answer, "Who is the Children's Poet Laureate of the United States?" I won for knowing it is Margarita Engle! I beelined to the front of the room at the end to get the book autographed. I can't wait to share this with my colleagues and students.

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