Can I Touch Your Hair?

Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

Can I Touch Your Hair?

By:  Latham, Irene
Waters, Charles
Qualls, Sean
Alko, Selina

$25.99 Hardback
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Lerner Publishing Group

Limited ***

7.3 X 10.3 in
40 pg

JUVENILE NONFICTION / Social Topics / Friendship

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.

"Salt-and-pepper teams of poets, illustrators and characters offer young readers a fresh and heartwarming take on bridging the racial divide. The poems show that social interaction is the key to finding and forging common bonds. I hope that this book will spark conversations across school cafeterias where students too often self-segregate."—Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
Other Print

"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."—starred, Publishers WeeklyJournal

"When they can't find partners quick enough, Charles and Irene get stuck working together on their poetry project. To Irene, Charles is too opinionated. To Charles, Irene is mousy and dull. They are too different, especially since Irene is white and Charles is black. In mirrored verses, the pair discover their similarities and respectfully examine their differences—covering topics as mundane as buying shoes, and as topical as police brutality, corporal punishment, and white guilt. Latham and Waters see this work as a conversation between their fictional, young poet doppelgängers, meant to heal divides and start conversations. Similarly, the art is a collaboration between a husband-and-wife team, that blends collage, colored pencils, and acrylic paint into dreamy abstractions that feature a motif of word flowers blooming across pages where Irene and Charles finally seem to connect. Young readers searching for means to have difficult, emotional, and engaged discussions about race will find an enlightening resource in Irene and Charles' explorations."—Booklist

"In tantalizing free verse poems, Irene Latham and Charles Waters reimagine themselves as fifth-grade strangers, then classmates, and finally friends. Can I Touch Your Hair? is a compelling portrait of two youngsters dancing delicately through a racial minefield."—J. Patrick Lewis, former US Children's Poet LaureateOther Print

"These poems explore diversity with refreshing honesty and complexity—and truly capture the personalities and voices of these two rising stars of poetry."—Janet Wong, author and co-creator of The Poetry Friday Anthology seriesOther Print

"A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication. In an unusual, long-distance collaboration, poets Latham and Waters have crafted a collection of poems that explore the intersection between race and childhood friendships. Each poet reveals his or her individual perspective on shared experiences by imagining their childhood selves existing in the current day of complex racial realities. Their interactions, expressed through poetic verse, navigate the ambiguous and often challenging feelings that children encounter as they grapple with identity and race—a process forced on them when they are paired for a classroom poetry project. The story takes readers through school days, interludes with concerned parents, and polarizing peer interactions. In one scene, young Irene, who is white, feels ostracized when she isn't invited to play freeze dance with the black girls on the playground. At the beach, young Charles, who is black, is teased by white kids who wear dreadlocks and cornrows, appropriating the culture of black people, while bullying and spewing hate toward Charles. In between the uncomfortable moments are lighter, universal childhood scenarios, as when Charles asserts his choice to be vegan at a traditional soul-food dinner or when Irene describes the solace she finds in her love of horses. Interracial couple Qualls and Alko contribute graceful illustrations that give the feelings expressed visual form. A brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America."—starred, Kirkus ReviewsJournal

"This clever book of poetry is about finding an unlikely friend. Classmates Irene and Charles (also the names of this book's coauthors) are paired together for a poetry writing project. Irene is white and, according to Charles, 'hardly says anything.' Charles, whose 'mouth is like a race car / that never stops to refuel,' is black. Each spread contains poems from both of their perspectives, with Irene's poem on one side of the page and Charles's on the other. The children write about topics such as shoes, hair, school, and church. As they get to know each other better, the poems traverse even trickier areas, such as slavery and contemporary police violence against African Americans. Irene and Charles also bond over the difficulties of making friends and a love of reading; the poem 'Author Visit' is about their excitement upon meeting one of their favorite writers, Nikki Grimes. The illustrations are in acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, and range from ordinary classroom scenes to spare, dramatic images to double-page spreads that visually connect Irene's and Charles's experiences into one, showing their similarities. Qualls and Alko's layering of print newspaper clippings over paint begs readers to take a closer look. Appended authors' and illustrators' notes provide more information about the book's background and development. This volume would make an excellent read-aloud or a launch pad for collaborative classroom writing."—The Horn Book Magazine


Irene Latham is the author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming works of poetry, fiction, and picture books, including Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship (co-written with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she became obsessed with octopuses after reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Just like Agnes, she enjoys sending—and receiving—postcards. Visit her at


Charles Waters is a children's poet, actor, and author. His poems have appeared in various anthologies including: One Minute Till Bedtime and The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry. Charles performs his one-person show as well as conducts poetry performance and writing workshops for elementary and middle school audiences. He lives in New York City.

Sean Qualls received a Coretta Scott King Honor award for his illustrations in Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, and has published many other acclaimed books. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his family. Visit his website at