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Can I touch your hair? : poems of race, mistakes, and friendship
2018
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  Publishers Weekly Review

Two classmates-serving as stand-ins for poets Latham and Waters-reluctantly pair up on a poetry-writing project and reflect on their identities, relationships, and the role race plays in their lives, in more than 30 candid, thought-provoking poems. The students aren't initially close ("She hardly says anything. Plus, she's white," thinks talkative Charles after being assigned to work with Irene), but that soon changes. The children's passions and preoccupations are revealed in poems that explore topics in parallel-new shoes, dinnertime, parental punishments, and police violence, among them-and the racial divisions of the children's churches, communities, and school become clear, too. "I smile when Shonda/ comes over, but she doesn't/ smile back," writes Irene. "You've got/ the whole rest of the playground,/ she says. Can't we/ at least have this corner?" Qualls and Alko (Why Am I Me?) play into the moody, reflective atmosphere in mixed-media collages whose teardrop/budding leaf motif underscores the way that conversation can lead to growth. The poems delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships. Ages 8-12. Authors' agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. Illustrators' agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

  School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-7-The conceit of a poetry project is this basis for this underdeveloped effort at unpacking racism in a school setting. The poems are presented from two perspectives: Irene's, a white girl, and Charles's, a black boy. ("Mrs. Vandenberg/holds up her hand./Write about anything!/It's not black and white//But it is./Charles is black,/and I'm white.") They take turns responding to everyday occurrences at home, at school, and in public. Charles's poems occasionally introduce important questions ("why do people who/want to look like me hate me so much?"), while Irene's are myopic and fail to challenge bias. In particular, a running thread involving Irene and a classmate, Shonda, is rife with unexamined stereotypes. Shonda is first introduced in "The Playground" as one of the freeze-dancing black girls who won't let Irene join in ("You've got/the whole rest of the playground,/she says. Can't we/at least have this corner?"). Later, when Irene learns that Shonda's family tree is "draped/in chains," she writes her a note apologizing for slavery. Disturbingly, their eventual friendship is compared to The Black Stallion: "I smile/the same way Alec does/when the stallion/nuzzles him/for the very first time." The writing is didactic, with stale imagery (white and black piano keys "singing together"). Qualls and Alko's artwork, done in acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, provides literal interpretations of the poems and lacks a certain spark, likely owing to Charles and Irene's almost permanently solemn facial expressions. VERDICT However earnest, this is a clumsy attempt at tackling interpersonal and systemic racism for middle grade readers.-Della Farrell, School Library Journal © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Summary
<p>Two poets, one white and one black, explore race and childhood in this must-have collection tailored to provoke thought and conversation.<br> How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth grade poetry project? They don't know each other . . . and they're not sure they want to. Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners. Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (of The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage), this remarkable collaboration invites readers of all ages to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences.</p>
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