I was blessed to have met Irene Latham and Charles Waters
at a recent SCBWI event in Birmingham. When they read from their new book, Can I Touch Your Hair?
I was hooked. Such a powerful book that will be talked about for some time. It is getting good reviews and was recently featured in a 12 x 12 webinar as one of librarian Betsy Bird's Top Twelve Books of 2018. They were gracious to answer some questions about their collaboration for readers of The GROG. (You can view an earlier post here interviewing Charles:
Post a comment and you will be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of their book.
Sherri: I think I head you say you "met" through your poetry publications, but can you tell us how you two came together for this project?
Irene: We knew each other and each other's poetry through Poetry Friday, which is a weekly online meetup of poetry folks sharing poetry posts and resources. We'd also been featured together in a couple of anthologies. Charles has always been kind and enthusiastic in our interactions, so when Carol Hinz suggested the book would work best as a conversation between a white poet and a black poet, and who would I like to work with, I instantly thought of Charles.
Sherri: Did you pitch the idea, or did someone pitch it to you?
Irene: It was actually our editor Carol Hinz's idea, and she recruited me and then I brought Charles on board.
Sherri: Did you meet before you started work on the book?
Irene: We didn't meet until after the book was finished. We relied on Google Docs, Microsoft Word, emails, texts, and the occasional phone call.
Sherri: How did you decide on the premise of the teacher giving an assignment?
Irene and Charles: We thought that made the most sense of getting a shy kid and an overactive kid together to get to know each other in the hopes of them becoming friends. Also, there should be poetry projects in all of humanity once a month!
Sherri: Tell us about the poem titles.
Irene: We each decided those on our own, as much as I can remember. (It's possible our editor helped us tweak a few...the thing I do remember is that at one point it was suggested that maybe the poems didn't need titles at all, and Charles and I were both attached to our titles! In fact, it's hard for me to imagine calling it a poem if it doesn't have a title. (Fortunately, the publisher supported our choice.)
Sherri: How long did it take from start to publication?
Charles: If I remember correctly, it was two years. However, we did get Carol a working manuscript to send to the acquisitions meeting in about three weeks.
Sherri: Charles, I heard you used the real name of a teacher. Can you tell us about her?
Charles: Becky Vandenberg was my high school teacher in English and math in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. My first day of school at Penn Wood High in September of 1988 was her second day of school. I felt a bond with her from the beginning because we were both newbies to Penn Wood. She's taught and mentored scores of students coming up on 30 years. I used her name in our manuscript and after a series of drafts, Irene asked me where did I get the name Mrs. Vandenberg. Once I told her about Becky, she said, "Well, we're definitely keeping the name now!"
Sherri: What would you like to see happen with this book? I could almost see a teacher using it in the classroom with different readers.
Irene and Charles: We hope it sparks conversations. We don't have all the answers, except to be kind to one another. As far as teachers using the book in their classrooms, we would be honored. Teaching artist/Musician/Playwright Lacresha Berry created a Teacher's Guide that is full of ways to implement the book into one's classroom.
Sherri: Can each of you share something you learned while working on this project?
Irene: We were both acolytes in the Episcopal church when we were kids.
Charles: We both grew up one of five kids within our respective families.
Sherri: Are the illustrations of each of you based on fifth grade photos?
Irene: We did send our 5th grade pics to Sean and Selina so they'd have a starting point. We love what they did!
Sherri: Do either of you have a favorite poem? Is there one you labored over?
Charles: My favorite poem in the book is Irene's poem "News."
which is written with such detail and sensitivity. When I do solo author visits, I try my best to read this poem to the audience. #lathampower.
Irene: And I love Charles' "Officer Brassard" poem.
It really shows how confusing and complicated humans can be. As for a poem I labored over, I don't think any went through more drafts than "Summer Reading," It was tough to hit the right note for the narrative thread, and there are still things I'd like to change about it.
Sherri: I especially liked the art. Every page turn had something new in color, format, or design. How did you react to the illustrations?
Charles: There may have been dancing involved for me. Thank goodness no one saw it. One of the skills I do not possess is the dancing skills of the late Fayard and Harold Nicholas or the musicianship of the late Cab Calloway.
Sherri: Is there another collaboration in the works?
Irene and Charles: You never know. :-)
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Irene Latham is the author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming books including two novels for children--Leaving Gee's Bend and Don't Feed the Boy. Winner of the 2016 Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, her poetry books for children include Dear Wandering Wildebeest, When the Sun Shines on Antarctica, and Fresh Delicious and Can I Touch Your Hair? (with Charles Waters). She lives in Alabama with her family where she does her best to "live her poem" every single day. Visit her online atwww.irenelatham.com.
Charles Waters is a children's poet, actor, and author. His poems have appeared in various anthologies including Amazing Places, 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. Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendships is his first book. He lives in New York.