Can I Touch Your Hair? and the N-Bomb: What is appropriate for children?

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

A customer on Amazon recently expressed concerns that the book Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship is not appropriate for elementary students because it includes a poem called “The N-Bomb” that references the existence of the N-word (though doesn’t spell it out). Coauthors Charles Waters and Irene Latham and editor Carol Hinz wanted to share their thoughts about the poem, the word, and tackling difficult topics with children.

Charles, Irene, and Carol

Conversations about the N-word aren’t easy. In a perfect world, we’d never have to talk about it, because the N-word wouldn’t exist. All of us want to protect the young people in our lives from the harshness of the world. But this wish won’t make the N-word disappear. And we cannot keep children’s ears from hearing a word that might one day be spoken in hate at them or at someone they love. The word comes up in songs, in movies, and, yes, sometimes in books. So what do we do?

Charles Waters, coauthor 

I don’t know how to have a conversation about the race in our country without talking about the N-word. It’s the atomic bomb of the English language. If someone outside my race says it, no matter the color, no matter the circumstance, it jars me. I don’t feel entirely that way when people who are African American say it, especially if it’s used as sign of affection or to discuss how people might view us behind closed doors.

I’ve heard from those who’ve said no word should have that much power and needs to be said out loud to diminish its impact, and from others who say it shouldn’t be uttered at all, no matter what, end of story.

Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s a right and wrong answer but I do know it would be unfortunate not to have a talk about it, especially between parents and their children. To have not written the poem “The N-Bomb” in Can I Touch Your Hair? would have been the equivalent of erasing my existence as a person of color in this world. By the way, I understand both the Charles character’s point of view in the poem and the mother’s point of view equally. It’s weird when you can see both sides of a debate and not come to a definitive conclusion. That’s what makes life so fascinating and complicated.

N-bomb poem

For anyone having trouble reading the poem from the image of the page above, here’s the full text of the poem:

Mom, holding my folded laundry, passes
as I’m nodding, swaying, flowing into rhythms
that make me start sliding my feet from side to side.
The rapper then punches out a word that makes
her do a double take. “Did he just drop the N-bomb?”
she asks. “Yes,” I say. “But it had an A at the end of it,
not an E-R, so it’s okay.” “No, it’s not,” she says, “No matter
how you spell it, it’s still a spit in the face of our ancestors,
who for far too long fought against the infection of that word.”
“Sorry,” I say, pressing the Stop button, not knowing what kind
of music I can listen to anymore that will make me happy.

Irene Latham, coauthor

I’ve made the mistake of withholding information from my own children in an effort to protect them—and I’ve regretted it. Whether you talk with a child about something difficult—or not—you’re taking a leap. Your decision will have consequences. As a mother, a poet, and a citizen in the twenty-first century, I feel like it is more important than ever to be open with our kids, even when it’s uncomfortable or frightening.

Ignoring hate, not talking about racism, doesn’t make it go away; it only allows it to fester and grow. The key to eliminating systemic racism is to bring it into the light so we can all see what we’re dealing with and how to change our attitudes and behavior.

I am reminded of an interview with Katherine Paterson, author of the Newbery Award-winning book Bridge to Terabithia, which includes the death of a child and has been criticized as being inappropriate for children. In an interview, she said, “I worry about children who still need a fairy tale. Is there a dividing line between children who need a fairy tale and children who need a book that reflects their life? It differs from child to child. And it’s [BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA] a book I really hope parents will read with their children. It gives you a safe place to talk about hard topics.”

I’m proud to have been part of creating a book that’s a safe place to talk about hard topics.

Carol Hinz, editor

Dear reviewer, thank you for taking the time to share your concerns about this book.

I first read Can I Touch Your Hair? to my older son, who is white, when he was seven years old. The book hadn’t even been printed, but I had a PDF on my computer and he wanted to know what I was working on. I started to read, expecting him to lose interest. But he didn’t. And then I got to the poem “The N-Bomb.” My heart dropped. I took a deep breath and said, “I need to tell you about a word you don’t know. It’s very bad and you should never use it.” I kept talking, and he listened carefully. After the fact, I was relieved. At some point, I knew he was going to encounter the word, whether in music, in a movie, or spoken by a peer. Did I want that to be his first exposure to it? Or did I want his first exposure to be in the safety of our home where we could talk about what the word is and why it is never okay?

While not every kid is exposed to a given word at the same age, it’s often not something we as parents can control. And I feel grateful to have books such as this one that allow children, parents, and educators to address race and racism in a manner that fosters conversation and empathy.

More about the N-word

A conversation between Oprah and Jay-Z

You’ll need to scroll down pretty far into the interview. Their exchange about it begins with the following:

Oprah: Speaking of conversations, when I met you a few years ago, we discussed our disagreement over the use of the N word and misogynist lyrics in rap music. Do you believe that using the N word is necessary?

Jay-Z: Nothing is necessary. It’s just become part of the way we communicate. My generation hasn’t had the same experience with that word that generations of people before us had. We weren’t so close to the pain. So in our way, we disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade.

A conversation between James Lipton and Chris Rock 

The N-word is addressed in the first 1:23 of the clip. *Warning: The full word is said multiple times in this video*

More about children and tough topics

A Safe Way to Talk about Hard Topics: Children’s Author Katherine Paterson by Joyce Marcel

Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness by Matt de la Peña

Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad by Kate DiCamillo

Books for adults about race

So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

NutureShock: New Thinking about Children by Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson (specifically the chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race”)

More posts by Carol.

2 thoughts on “Can I Touch Your Hair? and the N-Bomb: What is appropriate for children?

  1. Dr. Lin Steiner

    Re: The N-Bomb: I’m an Applied Social Psychologist writing children’s books addressing issues that challenge the development of healthy self-concepts, self-esteem and social unity. I specialize in systemic racism, sexism, gender issues and the like – and must say that “conversation” and “context” are necessary companions if our goal is understanding, growth and enlightenment.

    My impression of the poem is that it is, in and of itself, not offensive. However, it lacks context in which to explore the reasons why the parent had objections. It does – however – set the stage for the parent reader to engage in meaningful conversation with his/her child. The problem is that we have no way of securing that this conversation will take place – or in what flavor or degree – thereby creating an absence of context – or worse – an inappropriate context.

    If an author wishes to enter the N-word territory, or any other socially charged topic – they should take it to fruition, when children are the primary audience. Depending upon the age of the child – some have not yet reached the cognitive maturity required by abstract thinking. And as we all know – if we are trying to instill some sort of moral value in our writing – we must explain “reasoning” – rather than fostering compliant behavior due to fear of parental disapproval.

    As we can see in the boy’s character – he is left in a state of dissonance, confusion and self-doubt.

    1. carolhinz

      Dear Dr. Steiner,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. This poem, in fact, isn’t entirely intended to stand on its own. It’s part of a collection coauthored by Charles Waters and Irene Latham, in which the characters Charles and Irene end up as partners working together on a 5th grade poetry project. They begin the project barley knowing each other and end it as friends. So this poem is just one piece in a larger story arc.

      I do also think the poems in this book can be thought of as conversation starters. And yes, we don’t have a way of knowing for sure that this conversation will take place. Our goal in creating the book was to set the stage and to show the way Charles and Irene’s conversation evolved over the course of the book as an inspiration for readers to talk about race with the people in their lives.

Leave a Reply