Happy cover reveal day to Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship! This poetry picture book was written by Charles Waters and Irene Latham and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls.
The book will be released on January 1, 2018, and Irene and Charles are sharing two of the poems from the book today. Visit Irene’s blog to read the first poem in the book, and Charles’s blog to read the second.
Plus, keep reading for the Can I Touch Your Hair? authors’ and illustrators’ notes and photos of the final art.
You could say this project began with an e-mail in which one poet (Irene) asked another poet (Charles) to be a writing partner in a conversation about race, about how our individual experiences have shaped our lives. But that explanation doesn’t account for the conversations that came before that e-mail—or the books, the questions, the childhoods, and all that happened in the years before we were even born. Specifically, this book would not have happened if not for an inspired and inspiring conversation with our editor Carol Hinz. (Thank you, Carol!) A conversation about race and how we relate to one another is never limited to just that moment but must encompass all that came before—as well as our hopes for the future.
The poems in this collection went through different permutations before we decided 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.
In real life, Irene attended fifth grade at Folsom Elementary in Folsom, Louisiana. Charles attended fifth grade at Penrose Elementary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We became acquainted online in 2012 through Poetry Friday and other activities hosted by the children’s poetry community. We have yet to meet in person. Our correspondence has been mainly through e-mail and text messaging, with the occasional phone call. It wasn’t until we embarked upon the journey of writing this book that we truly became friends.
Fun fact: The teacher in the book, Mrs. Vandenberg, is based on Charles’s former teacher, Becky Vandenberg, who has been a beacon of light, not only for Charles but for many of the students she has taught and mentored at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, since 1988.
While we invented many details to better serve the book, the spirit of each poem is based on our real-life experiences growing up in the 1980s and attending city and suburban public schools. Whether real or imagined, the poems reflect our truest and most honest emotions and recollections about our experiences related to race. Like the speakers in this book, during this poetry project, we experienced fear, but we were open; we made missteps, yet we stumbled forward; and we learned things, and it changed us.
We hope you will find the courage in these pages to have your own conversations about race.
Irene & Charles
When we first read the manuscript for Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, we liked that the poems were a dialogue between an African American boy and a Caucasian girl—just like us. Right away, we could imagine ourselves in our own childhood classrooms, asking some of the same questions and having many of the same complicated feelings. Both separately and together, we revisited some of the hurts, alienations, curiosities, and hopes we remember feeling as children.
At home—and in our work—we strive to ask each other questions as a way to try to understand each other’s points of view. It is a constant process of discovery and learning—one that began eighteen years ago when we first met and continues today through the process of working on art for picture books.
Our illustrations are made using acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage. Mixing together materials mirrors our philosophy of mixing together our cultures. Our own children are a mix of both of us—and just as we teach them empathy and curiosity at home, we attempt to teach empathy and curiosity to children everywhere through the art in our books.
We hope that this book may ignite conversations about race and identity—conversations that aren’t so easy to have but are necessary to gain greater understanding.
Sean & Selina