The sub-title of Can I Touch Your Hair? is this: “Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship.” I love this. Friendships aren’t always easy, no matter one’s age. They can involve stumbles and missteps when communicating. This can especially be the case when that growing friendship involves a white child and a black child, not afraid of talking fearlessly about race. And that’s what we have here—two children assigned to do a classroom project together, who along the way learn a great deal about each other’s worlds.
In these short poems, we meet a young white girl named Irene and a young black boy named Charles. Note the names of the duo who penned these free-verse poems—Irene Latham and Charles Waters. Charles is a black children’s book author and poet; Irene, white. In a closing author’s note, they write that they set out to write about “what it would be like if we 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,” they add, is based on some of their own real-life experiences as children in public schools. The book is illustrated via colorful acrylics, colored pencils, and collage by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, a biracial husband-wife team.
The Irene and Charles in the book end up as reluctant partners for Mrs. Vandenberg’s Poem Project. They are tasked with writing poetry together: “Write about anything!” the teacher tells the entire class. “It’s not back and white.” The teacher is wrong, Irene thinks. Charles is black. “Now I’m stuck with Irene?” Charles thinks to himself. “She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.” These candid thoughts certainly don’t reflect the erroneous children-are-colorblind theory. (Researchers have proven children as young as age three recognize race and even develop racial biases.)
In a set of 33 poems, we follow Charles and Irene—who are given abundant individuality, the authors altogether avoiding any broad, stereotypical character strokes—as they explore what topics to cover in their poetry project; Charles suggests to Irene they write about their shoes, hair, school, and church. Along the way, the poems address a wide range of complex racial issues—police brutality (with growing fear, Charles watches news reports about violence towards black boys and men); white privilege (Irene is reminded one day by a black girl how the white kids dominate most of the playground); cultural appropriation (Charles is confused by boys who “want to look like me [yet] hate me so much”); racial stereotyping (Charles is picked first for basketball, “maybe for being lanky or for having darker skin”); and even white fear of the black man (as expressed in one of Irene’s poems, “Why Aunt Sarah Doesn’t Go Downtown after Dark”).
The parallel poems about church—Irene’s “Church” and Charles’s “Sunday Service”—are remarkable in their self-awareness. We as readers wonder if this is perhaps the first time Irene has wondered at the racial make-up of her church, specifically that “everyone is white.” (This is something many white adults don’t ever consider.) For his part, Charles wonders at the Caucasian Jesus, perhaps his first time to ponder it:
“If it says in the Bible that Jesus / had hair like wool, eyes that were a flame of
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?”
The most striking poem may be “Geography,” in which a white classmate answers a geography question incorrectly, but not (it seems) in an intentionally insensitive manner, with a response involving black people. The disappointed teacher reproaches the student, Irene noting in her poem that she had planned to answer in the same way. “I learn,” Irene writes, “when it comes to black and white, sometimes it’s best to press my lips closed and not say anything at all.”
It’s a blunt and frank moment, expressing the difficulty many people have with discussing racial divisions in this country. But the book as a whole serves as a wonderful example for children of how we can have these uncomfortable but important conversations—by honestly and intrepidly reaching out.
It’s powerful poetry, a must-have for classrooms in every state.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.