Today’s book is one of the most powerful picture books of the year for me. A book of poems, written from the perspective of two classmates – a white girl and a black boy. This book is required reading in my opinion. It will make you uncomfortable, inspire you, make you laugh, and stay with you. Take a look at Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko, 2018.
What is it about?
The book opens with a spread. On the left page, a white girl sits at a desk looking towards the right page, where a black boy sits at a desk and looks back at her. On the girl’s page on the left, her poem is called “The Poem Project” in a headline of white text in a black rectangle. She explains the teacher’s assignment and how she accidentally got paired with Charles. The teacher says:
“Write about anything! It’s not black and white.”
“But it is,”
the girl continues her poem,
“Charles is black, and I’m white.”
On the right side, Charles’ poem shares his version of how they became writing partners. Neither are thrilled at the pairing. The two only see their differences when they look across the aisle to each other. It is black and white. But it is more than that. He talks too much; she doesn’t talk hardly ever. They take deep breaths and decide on a place to start: their shoes and hair.
The book is a collection of poetry, but shares both sides of their school project journey in amazing, expressive poems: How they approach the same subject. How they feel about family, church, friends, sports, school…. How they respond to situations. Their thoughts, concerns, big questions, and social interactions. This is a raw, naive, and beautifully profound look at what it feels like to be one or the other – black or white, quiet or talkative – but also how they are the same – unsure, awkward, passionate, knowledgeable, loved, confused, friends.
Why I picked it
I resonated so much with Irene’s character. Her appearance as a little girl, but also her thoughts, questions, interests, and mannerisms. I was not shown how to navigate racial questions, observations, fears or thoughts growing up. I would have loved this poetry book, the story it tells, and especially the way it tells it. I love that it starts out with all the differences, but it weaves the similarities between them and the unique voices and interests they hold.
While this book might feel a little odd as a gift, it is wonderful. It is a topic we all need to be better at discussing. It is gentle and strong in its approach. It is beautiful and interesting. The poems are amazingly eloquent. It presents both sides of the sharpest race divide with respect and humanity. It is a breath of fresh air.
Who will love this?
Charles and Irene, the two main characters are in 5th grade. That’s a good starting point for the best age range. But I think it is pretty clear in our current social and political climate that there is no cap of age to those who need this book. We all need to hear what this book has to say. We all can relate in some way to Irene or Charles. I’m also not sure that 5th grade has to be the starting age though. Perhaps if these conversations and connections started earlier, the differences wouldn’t seem so daunting. I plan to read this early and often to my school age kids, perhaps selectively, perhaps not. This is a beautiful, much-needed gift.
Bonus Gift Pairings
If you are in NYC, my favorite pairing for this book is the iconic black and white cookie. A treat, a symbol, and a delight. Great picture book pairings would be Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, also illustrated by Alko & Qualls as well as The Other Side and Each Kindness, both by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis.
Come back tomorrow for the next book from this year in my 25 Days of Favorite New Picture Books countdown!