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Thursday, August 23, 2018

Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship. Written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, with illustrations by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Carolrhoda Books, Lerner. Thomas Allen & Son. 2018. $25.99 ages 8 and up

"How many poems?
someone asks.
About what? 
Do they have to be true? 

Mrs. Vandenberg
holds up her hand.
Write about anything! 
It's not black and white. 

But it is. "

Charles is black. Irene is white. They are the last two students to partner up for the 'Poem Project.' On the opening page, and facing each other, the two react in poetry to Mrs. Vandenberg's announcement about picking partners for the assigned project. They do not know each other well. Charles has some suggestions for getting started with poems about shoes, hair, and then maybe school and church. It is a place to start!

In following pages, they compare their experiences. It is quite the inventive way to show perspective, and gives readers much to ponder. The poems and authors face each other with each turn of the page. The topics are wide-ranging and of interest to the intended audience. They include: shoes, hair, church, beach, horseback riding, playground, geography, best and worst dinner conversation, apology. They touch on complicated issues such as slavery and police brutality as well.

The two find commonalities when they talk about their love of reading and facing the difficulties inherent in finding true friends. In these poems that capture clear thoughts on identity and race, they confront their own feelings and perceptions. We all face challenges. It's important to talk about them. We need hard conversations to start and then keep them going. Only in the true acceptance of our differences can we find the many similarities.

"Bedtime Reading
After homework
I read The Black Stallion 
for the third time.

I imagine I'm Alec,
coaxing that horse
with seaweed.

and it's me
the stallion is saving
when he stomps
out the snake.

When I find
a note from Shonda
tucked inside the pages,
I can't wait to tell Charles.

Sorry for freezing you 
out of freeze dance, it says.

I smile
the same way Alec does
when the stallion
nuzzles him
for the very first time."


Irene and I stand in line, cradling our book like
newborn kittens. We can't stop smiling.
We're about to meet an author, her name is Nikki Grimes.
We both love her book about kids in someplace called
the Bronx going through life's ups and downs, like us.
I tell Irene that with her beaded earrings, twisty curls, and full lips,
Ms. Grimes is a mirror image of my Auntie Jackie. Irene whispers
when she grows up, she's going to be a writer, go to schools, and sign books.
Mrs. Vanderberg says, " Ms. Grimes, I'd like you to meet
two of your biggest fans," and our faces briefly turn crimson.
Her bracelets jangle as she shakes our hands, takes our books,
then dashes off her name in perfect cursive.
Skipping back to class, Irene and I high-five each other
while our classmates stare at us like we're Martians."

Candid, contemporary and critical to having readers think and talk about issues of importance to each of us, this book needs to be shared in families, classrooms, and school libraries. It is an important addition for an collection.

The artwork by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko is created using varied media - acrylic paint, colored pencil and collage. They perfectly match their art to the text on the page, assuring understanding and allowing readers to see how similar the two writers are. Every image begs attention, and is worthy of a close look.

The author and illustrator notes that follow are thorough and enlightening.

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