Last week, three of the four creators of Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship took part in a special Horn Book live webcast. Charles Waters, Irene Latham, and Selina Alko discussed how their new picture book came to be with The Horn Book‘s Roger Sutton. You can listen to the webcast here.
They also answered audience questions, but there were quite a few questions they didn’t have a chance to answer in the 45-minute webcast. We thought they’d make a great blog post! So, here are their answers along with a few spreads from the book.
What does poetry mean to you?
Irene: Poetry is a way of walking around in the world, a way of living. It holds us in the moment and engages all our senses and emotions. If I was stuck on a deserted island, I think I could survive if I had a book of poems!
Charles: Poetry is about witnessing extraordinary moments in the ordinary moments of your life. When that happens, it can make you hyper-aware of the world, both the good and the not-so-good. It makes you pay attention.
Did you have discussions in advance about poetry forms you would use? Was there a quest for consistency, or did you each have a wide-open canvas? How important do you feel it is to obey poetry “rules”?
Irene: We did not discuss at all which form to use–we just started writing! I think because I got my start in the world of adult poetry, I have a heavy preference for free verse, in part, because there are no unbreakable rules, beyond Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Charles: When I first started writing children’s poetry I was influenced a great deal by Jack Prelutsky, so I wrote in rhyme. As the years went by I read more books of free verse for writers such as Valerie Worth and Barbara Juster Esbensen, so now I write more in free verse. I adore Nikki Grimes’s work because she writes both free verse and rhyme and her rhymes melt into her poems like grapeseed oil liquefying in a pan.
Charles and Irene, how did you connect?
Irene and Charles: Poetry Friday is only the most beautiful corner of the internet! Find out more about Poetry Friday (and please join in! Everyone is welcome!) in this blog post.
What do you think white authors and illustrators should keep in mind when writing a picture book about a person of color?
Charles: For me, as long as a person does their research on any subject matter and deals with it honestly and with hyper self-awareness, it’s all good. However, know that you’re probably going to catch flack for it, if you can handle that, then go with the universe and write your truth.
Irene: I agree with Charles. Also, ask yourself questions like these: what draws me to this story/culture? Why am I the right storyteller? What is my connection, and is it genuine? Examining our own motives can offer invaluable guidance about whether to proceed with an idea.
The poems are not identified directly as voiced by Irene or Charles. Is it all in the context of the words or does the art work help illuminate the character’s poem?
Selina: The artwork may help give clues to the poet’s perspective but there was no intentional formula to distinguish the two.
Irene: Because the poems are about identity, it is very clear who the speaker is from the content and by the style of the writing.
What is the hardest part of collaborating?
Irene: It’s true what Jane Yolen says about collaboration being “twice the work for half the pay.” But it’s also true that this collaboration with Charles has been the most rewarding and fulfilling experience of my writing life.
Charles: There hasn’t been a hard part for me in collaborating with Irene. It’s been a pleasure. If anything, I’m spoiled because whoever I might collaborate with in the future, besides Irene, will have a lot to live up to.
Selina: When you’re working with another person you need to consider their timeline and their way of working–it’s a matter of giving up a certain amount of control. For me, this is the most challenging when coordinating schedules with my husband and co-illustrator, Sean Qualls. We are both very busy!
What were your hopes after publishing Can I Touch Your Hair? How do you envision this book being used in a classroom?
Irene: Once a book is delivered to the world, it becomes the reader’s–so, of course the hope is that it finds those readers! We need the help of teachers and librarians for that to happen.
Charles: There’s a Can I Touch Your Hair? teacher guide created by teaching artist/playwright/actress Lacresha Berry, that will help any teacher start a dialogue with their students about the book. You can find that here.
Do you have a good method to teach kids grade 1 to 7 about poetry?
Irene: The first most basic thing anyone can do: read poems with kids! Simply sharing a poem cracks open the door.
Charles: Find out what they like in their lives, sports, music, etc, and find a book of poems or novels-in-verse that deal with that. There are scores of poetry books on a wide swaths of subjects. Sylvia Vardell has a blog that’s a major resource for this very thing.
Do you think poems with illustrations help kids understand them better?
Selina: Yes. Kids can latch onto a sense of character and then–hopefully–spend a little more time with the words while pondering the pictures.
Charles: Absolutely! Illustrations can be a perfect balance to the words in a book. Illustrations rule!
I wonder if you’ve shared Can I Touch Your Hair? with students yet (school visits, festivals, etc.). What have students’ responses been?
Selina: I haven’t had the chance to share Can I Touch Your Hair? yet. Based on the cover alone though, it seems like people are eager and excited to have conversations about hair–at the very least! I think readers will find a lot more to discuss when they dig in deeper.
Charles: This week, I’m doing school visits in Seattle and Mercer Island, WA, so stay tuned! However, when Irene and I went to the AASL and NCTE conferences in November, the responses from educators were super encouraging.
Irene: We got our first piece of fan mail about the book from a 3rd grader named Ingrid. One of the things Ingrid said she liked about the book was how “you both shared your feelings.” She also mentioned Sean and Selina’s collage illustrations and included a picture of herself at the library with our book. Ingrid totally made our day!
Will the writers and illustrators be participating in conversations like this, for the public, in promotion of the book?
Selina: Yes, we are doing two events with the four of us on April 21st. It will be the first time we all meet each other! The events will be at Poet’s House and with the PEN World Voices Festival, both in New York City.
Can I Touch Your Hair?, written by Charles Waters and Irene Latham and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, is available through lernerbooks.com, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound, and all major distributors.
Plus, read Charles and Irene’s author’s note along with Sean and Selina’s illustrator’s note in this blog post.