Monday, February 4, 2019

Review - Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship
by Irene Latham & Charles Waters
illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
Date: 2018
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books (R)
Reading level: C
Book type: illustrated poetry collection
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

Two poets, one white and one black, explore race and childhood in this must-have collection tailored to provoke thought and conversation.

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.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't even know how to write this review. I'll probably be called a racist no matter what. The book wants to start a dialogue, though, so here goes:

The feeling I get after reading this book as a white person is guilt. Why? I can't quite explain it, but it probably has something to do with the way white people are demonized throughout the text. Apparently, we all hate black people, yet paradoxically want to be them at the same time. If we braid our hair a certain way, or get a tan, or want to join a game of freeze dance, we're stepping on toes. Now, as an adult, I can see where all of this is coming from, but I can imagine that these messages could be quite confusing for kids. The part when Irene sees her black classmate's family tree with the chains in the branches to represent slavery is potentially even more confusing. Irene feels she needs to apologize to the girl, but I don't think she even knows why. There's a difference between saying, "I'm sorry this happened to you," and, "I'm sorry I did this to you." Unfortunately, the distinction isn't made clear, which could potentially leave young white readers with a sense that they're supposed to apologize for something... though they may not know what.

I think part of the problem I had with this book is that it reads like historical fiction. The names of some of the kids aren't that modern, so I thought maybe it took place in the past. That would explain things like Irene's father beating his children with a paddle (this is normalized, which I did not like; there are other ways to teach children respect other than giving them hypocritical messages by disrespectfully abusing their bodies). Charles is newly vegan, and he eats nothing but rice, beans, and pumpkin, while the rest of his family chows down on soul food. Today, there's no reason he couldn't have vegan soul food... so it's either a dated representation of veganism, or simply a lazy one. Also, if this isn't a historical representation of race relations in an American elementary school, then the US has a major problem. (Well... I think the rest of the world already knew that.) I have a really hard time relating as a Canadian, because it's just not something that happens the same way here. We're not perfect, of course, and there is discrimination... but up until recently when Trump-era morals brought all the bigots out of the woodwork, it was usually based on things other than skin colour (religion and language being a couple of the major issues). It doesn't make sense to discriminate over something that 1) has nothing to do with what kind of person you are, and 2) nobody has any control over. But that seems to be what's happening with the characters in this book. (The authors' note at the end says that they wanted to write about a school with a 60% white and 40% minority population. You could be forgiven for thinking that it's more unbalanced than that, based on the text and the amount of prejudice that's happening.)

The format of this book didn't really work for me, either. It comes across more as two kids talking about their problems individually than any sort of back-and-forth dialogue. For much of the book, it doesn't seem like Irene and Charles have that much contact with each other at all. And the poems themselves? I wasn't impressed. Apparently, all you have to do to write poetry today is be artful with your line breaks. There's no rhyme, no meter, and no flow. Aside from having one poem from each kid for each topic, there wasn't really anything that drew the poems together into something cohesive.

I've read a couple of other picture books illustrated by Qualls and Alko, and I haven't been a huge fan of the pictures there, either. They're just not for me.

While I appreciate what this book was trying to do, I don't think it really got there. I would've rather seen a picture book with an actual story (about either of the kids separately, or both together). Also, it needed to pick a time period and not try to mix the ideas and perceptions of the 1980s with those of the 2010s; that just didn't work. This book was a disappointment, not least because it seems to blame white people for everything that's wrong without enough context; this is a kids' picture book, after all, not a literary chapbook for adults who are used to dissecting what they read.

Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.17 out of 5 ladybugs

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