By Libby Stille, Associate Publicist
In January of 2015, editor Carol Hinz had an idea for a children’s poetry picture book that discussed race in a way that would be accessible to middle-grade audiences. She reached out to poet and children’s author Irene Latham and asked her to suggest a partner for the project. Irene chose poet Charles Waters to write with her, and many drafts, phone calls, and revisions later the book became Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship.
Can I Touch Your Hair? has received two starred reviews and has been used in grade school, middle school, and even high school classrooms across the country to facilitate open and honest conversations about race. I asked Irene, Charles, and Carol to share how they created this incredible, sensitive book and also how the book has been received by young readers. Here is their conversation.
Carol: The seeds of this book were planted when Irene and I had a phone conversation. Afterward, she emailed Charles—someone she’d never met but was familiar with from the Poetry Friday online community—about collaborating. Was the collaboration process about what the two of you expected it would be, or were there surprises along the way?
Irene: I wasn’t sure how it would work for me, as I am a solitary writer for the most part. I didn’t really have any expectations—I just knew this would be meaningful work, and I wanted to try. I also knew instantly that Charles was the poet I wanted to work with. (Not sure how I knew, but I knew—call it poet’s intuition!)
I figured it would work, or it wouldn’t; Charles would say YES, or—well, I actually just knew he would say YES. His kind, enthusiastic online presence filled me with hope and confidence. There was nothing to lose, and so much to gain! I realize now how naive I was—and how fortunate.
Our trust deepened over time. We truly are partners in this thing, and we’ve become good friends in the process. I’m so grateful.
Charles: The more my friendship strengthened with Irene, the deeper our poems would go into the subject matter. For example: Irene’s poem “News” is my favorite of the book. She wrote about police brutality with such sensitivity, I tried my hardest to match that depth of feeling in my response poem, “Officer Brassard.” I found she pushed me in a positive way with her words.
Carol, I know that reading Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine helped spark your idea for Can I Touch Your Hair? Were there any other books that also played a part?
Carol: Yes, definitely! The first book that comes to mind is the incredible verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which I had read just before reading Citizen. Both books are by black women and are in large part autobiographical, so I was very much thinking about the transformative power of sharing stories from our everyday lives.
Another book is All American Boys, co-authored by Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiley. It’s a fictional book for a YA audience, and it’s an example of a black author and a white author collaborating on a book that examines police brutality and race in America. After reading it, I wondered what sort of books might speak to middle-grade readers about race in America.
I also have to mention Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I read it back in 2010 when I was pregnant with my son Oliver. It includes a chapter called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race,” which powerfully explains the why white parents need to talk openly with their children about race and difference. That chapter helped shape my thinking about the need for having conversations, and it is my hope that Can I Touch Your Hair? provides a springboard for parents, educators, and students of all backgrounds to have some of these conversations.
Charles, what was the hardest topic for you to write about? Were there any topics you wish there had been space to write about that aren’t in the book?
Charles: The “Dinner Conversation” poem was something that meant a great deal to me because of my veganism. (Though I wasn’t a vegan growing up.) I tried my best to make sure to poetically get my point across without standing on a soapbox preaching to the disinterested. Also, my folks are good people and even though we had some uncomfortable moments at the dinner table growing up, as all families do, I didn’t want to make them seem like villains.
I do want to say that the most healing poem to write was “Forgiveness” because ever since I was kid—and to this very day—I get accused of talking or acting in a way that doesn’t jibe with another person’s view of how I should supposedly talk or act because of my race.
The poem I wish was still in the book is Irene’s poem “Willie Babe” about a doll she had growing up. We actually wrote enough poems for two books during the creative process! While working on this book, I realized that writing and editing is the same as sculpting, except the three of us were sculpting words.
Carol: One of the things I most appreciate about editing your work, Irene, is how fearless you are when it comes to revisions. Some of the poems in this collection changed only slightly in the editing process, while others changed quite a lot. Can you talk about how you approach revisions?
Irene: I love revisions! And I love working with editors like you who ask questions and help me dig into a poem to discover what I meant to say all along. It helps to me remember that there are millions of words—let them come, let them go. Give poems space and freedom to breathe, and they WILL grow. Sometimes it takes a while—and sometimes it takes a lot of wrong words to find the BEST words!
Carol: Charles, I hadn’t worked with you before, but I knew you’d contributed to a few different children’s poetry anthologies prior to Can I Touch Your Hair?. What was the most surprising part of the process of writing your first book?
Charles: Whereas I would revise and revise one poem, or two at the most, for an anthology, the sheer amount of revisions for a entire book is a whole other ballgame. I had to remember to take it one poem at a time and not get overwhelmed with your spot-on notes. I am beyond thankful that I had Irene to bounce ideas off of and to reassure me.
Sharing Can I Touch Your Hair?
Irene: Carol, you are the mother of young children. How are sharing this book with your kids, and what has been their reactions?
Carol: I started sharing this book with my 7-year-old son when it wasn’t even a finished book! One night I had a PDF of the layout up on my computer, and he asked what it was. So I told him and then he asked me to read it to him. Much to my surprise, he asked for it at bedtime on a number of occasions after that. (Since he’s younger than the intended audience for the book, I wasn’t sure it would hold his interest, but I was completely wrong about that!) And when I brought home the completed book, he became interested in it all over again. It has sparked some wonderful conversations for us.
As I was thinking about how to answer this question, I decided to ask my son directly about Can I Touch Your Hair?. He said he likes it, “Because it talks about things that people don’t usually talk about.”
My 4-year-old probably needs a few more years to grow into reading the full book. His first exposure to an idea from the book is talking about “best and worst” during a family dinner. My older boy suggested it one night because he was intrigued by Irene’s description of it in the book!
Irene: Charles, you are an experienced performer of poetry in schools. How has the experience of sharing this very personal book and your author presentation been different for you?
Charles: For both, it’s key to read the energy of the audience and respond accordingly. If someone laughs during a serious poem, I’ll do more of them because that laughter shows how nervous they are.
The responses to the author presentation have been humbling. It gets super personal when I ask the students and faculty:
- Who has touched your hair?
- Did that person ask for permission or did they just do it?
- How did it make you feel when they asked—or when they didn’t?
The amount of hands that go up in the air and the answers the students and faculty give me are a peek into the things we all think about but do not say for fear of starting a possibly uncomfortable conversation.
Carol: You’ve done a few joint school visits to share this book with students and teachers, and you’ll be visiting more schools in the coming months. Can you describe what sort of responses you’ve gotten to the book and what sort of conversations you’ve been having?
Charles and Irene: The response has been amazing and encouraging. At East Grand Rapids Middle School (MI) we were able to spend time with a “diversity” group—kids with a special interest in diversity who had all participated in an earlier diversity training program.
We discussed with these kids about ways to move beyond tolerance to belongingness, and then we asked them to pair up and write poems on topics found in the book: food, news, shoes, church, etc. We then passed around a “talking stick” and listened as each person read their poem aloud to the group. There were tears, laughter, and a whole lot of understanding. We were blessed to share that moment with these kids.
We are in the process of adding their amazing poems to a gallery of poems and art inspired by the book found here.
Learn more about Can I Touch Your Hair?
Can I Touch Your Hair? was released on January 1, 2018, critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly said the poems “delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships” in its starred review of the title. In another starred review, Kirkus called the book “a brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America.”
You can read the Can I Touch Your Hair? authors’ and illustrators’ notes here. Plus, read fellow Lerner author Nina Crews’s conversation with Can I Touch Your Hair? illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, and listen to Irene Latham and Charles Waters’s episode of The Yarn podcast.