A poem should not mean,
— Archibald MacLeish
This is What it Means to See
and giving voice to those children
who don’t yet know their power
is to open the world.
knows how to woo her student Jack,
understands how to draw from him
phrases that play with shapes and sounds,
stanzas that speak to the pain
During a school year
where poetry is a regular part of things,
words work deep,
as Jack does from a boy who thinks
writing poetry is to
to one who finds the courage —
through the voice and style of others —
to speak his own.
“Was it like me
when I didn’t think
Jack asks Mrs. Stretchberry,
and I am firm in the knowing
teachers reach into lives,
authors speak directly to their readers,
words make impact,
as sweet as
a dog lolling in the afternoon sun,
as painful as
“that straggly furry
hit by a car,
sprawled on the road
“with his legs bent funny,”
taken in a moment from the boy
who’d picked him from the shelter
“with his paws curled
around the wire
and his long red tongue
and his big black eyes
looking a little sad
and his long tail
as if he were saying
Me me me! Choose me!”
It is in the writing down
that loss becomes more than sorrow:
It becomes a touchstone for all who encounter
even when it’s not their own.
a battle cry,
a picture that says
this is what it means to see.
Some like to debate
the merit of the verse novel:
Is it a collection of poems tied together through narrative?
A hybrid form somehow lesser than true poetry?
Something from English class — stories spoken by a blind man?
A tale stripped bare, chopped to pieces for effect?
whatever the definition,
there is no denying verse novels
open the way of rhythm,
expose through brevity
give readers room to live in the midst of language
rich and intricate,
beautiful and barren.
Sharon Creech tells a complete story
with a handful of poems,
and in doing so
accents Jack’s world with authenticity
that would have been lost in a jumble of prose.
Jack the room to experiment with writing
and pushes him beyond,
allows him to dream
an Important Poet cares —
when Walter Dean Myers,
who inspires Jack’s bravest work,
walks into Jack’s fictitious world,
takes notice of the boy who
Loves That Dog.
The only things adults need to understand about poetry is that children instinctively love rhymes, and teens crave a safe, rhythmic outlet for emotions… . None of it needs to be analyzed. If you set young people free to enjoy the process of reading and writing poetry, you give them a gift they can treasure for a lifetime and share with their grandchildren far into the future.
— Margarita Engle, Young People’s Poet Laureate
A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication…a brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America.
— Kirkus, starred review
The poems delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships.
— Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
Young readers searching for means to have difficult, emotional, and engaged discussions about race will find an enlightening resource in Irene and Charles’ explorations.
Can I Touch Your Hair? is a beautifully direct yet somehow outstandingly subtle work that will allow young readers to navigate and understand their places in their communities and the greater world.
— Shelf Awareness
Please tell us about your book.
Inspired by a book of poems for adults, CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine, this collection of poems is a conversation between two fifth grade students — one black, one white — about their lives, identities and relationships, through the prism of race. There are poems about ordinary things like shoes and hair and also more difficult topics like the N word and police brutality.
How did the idea for Can I Touch Your Hair come about? Did you know the story was to be told through poetry from the start, or was this something you discovered as the work progressed?
The book was a collection of paired poems from the very start. Our editor Carol Hinz is one of those gems in the publishing world who not only loves to read poetry, but is willing to take a chance on publishing it! When she broached the idea of this project, she spoke of how poetry can get to the meat of an issue in a clear and powerful way — and that’s what she wanted to achieve in our book. We were more than delighted to give it a go, and wow, did the poems come fast! We had the first draft ready for Carol within three weeks of our initial conversation.
What’s it like writing a book with someone else? How did you go about your work together?
For two people who had never met until the book was finished and we were at a book signing/workshop conference, it was long hours of trust-building — but always a pleasure. We’ve never had one disagreement, and we’ve shared with one another memories and experiences never shared previously. Poems were sent via Microsoft Word back and forth with each of us choosing a topic and then writing about it. Now, we use Google Docs a lot to send poems to each other.
Why was poetry the best fit for this particular story? How does poetry allow writers to communicate in ways prose can’t?
Poetry is so special because you can get your point across in the fewest amount of words which can have a bigger impact because there aren’t pages and pages to go through.
What do you hope readers take away from Can I Touch Your Hair?
That’s it’s okay to ask questions, to be inquisitive and respectful, to make mistakes, learn from them and have a possible connection with someone who you might not have thought you could ever be friends or acquaintances with. We’d also be delighted if this book helps people find the courage to start their own conversations about race.
What have you learned about each other during this collaborative process (that didn’t make it into the book)?
We have an amazing number of quirky things in common! Here’s a sampling:
1. We both grew up as one of five children in our respective families.
2. At one point we’ve both worked at Disney World.
3. As kids we were acolytes in our respective churches.
4. We both were named after a grandparent or great-grandparent.
5. We both think Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most gifted actors ever.
Thank you, Caroline, so much for having us!
Irene & Charles
It’s absolutely my pleasure.
Art is made of questions and craft.
What she doesn’t know shapes her work
along with the hope that someone believes
in her even if that girl can’t see
what’s under her hands.
The verse novel Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis spoke deeply to me about the artistic process. Art grows from questions. The things we don’t know nevertheless shape our creative pursuits. Borrowing another’s belief in our ability before they — and even we ourselves — fully see the work under our hands can free us to dive in.
So much truth and beauty here.