Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters is a book of poetry for middle grade readers. I know, I can hear y’all screaming now, NO YOU CANNOT!
Latham and Waters write poems in the guise of two fifth graders (also named Irene and Charles) who have been partnered in a class poetry assignment. Neither wants to be partnered with the other – what could they possibly have in common? Irene is White and a girl, Charles is a Black boy. As so often happens when people look past the surface, they find that they share surprising similarities and learn from each other’s differences.
Irene and Charles write about their experiences with friends, family, church, and yes, hair. One of Irene’s poems reveals that her hair is now a straight yellow curtain that she can hide behind, but once she desperately wanted an afro and convinced her mother to give her a perm so that she could simulate one. That hairstyle didn’t last long.
Charles and Irene each have their identities challenged in different ways and try to work through the feelings those challenges stirred up through poetry. The kids work through acts of kindness and hostility, of wanting to belong and being rejected. Irene finds herself not knowing what to do about feelings of guilt over American slavery and its impact on her Black classmate. Charles finds himself puzzled over why white kids who are trying to look like him think they are better than he is.
Can I Touch Your Hair is a refreshing read because it doesn’t attempt to give answers; it just examines how two children in one fifth grade class are dealing honestly with issues that most kids and adults have to address as well. Their willingness to be open allows readers to relate to their experiences and gives us all meaty food for thought. I highly recommend this book for children ages 9+