Author Interview! Charles Waters and Irene Latham

Yesterday I reviewed the book Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Reminder, I am an Amazon Affiliate. I do not get paid to review or recommend books, but if you make a purchase by clicking on a link I receive a percentage of the sale.

I had the privilege of interviewing the authors about their book, their friendship and their lives and am excited to share the interview today!

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What would surprise our readers about you?

Irene and Charles: Most people are surprised when they find out that we met – for the first time – in November 2017 at AASL in Phoenix, AZ. We were online acquaintances when we started writing this book (in January 2015), and we completed the project through email, mostly, with the occasional text and phone call. Our real-life friendship really mirrors the friendship as portrayed in the book. We’ve also discovered we have quite a few quirky things in common, including but not limited to: we both worked at Disney World; we were both named for a great-grandparent; and we each grew up in big families as one of five siblings.

Our real-life friendship really mirrors the friendship as portrayed in the book.

How did the book come about?

Irene: The book exists because of our editor Carol Hinz. We had both been reading CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine, a book of poems for adults that deals with systemic racism. Carol wanted to bring this to a younger audience, to be a change agent, and she suggested one way to do that was a conversation, through poems, between a white poet and a black poet. I instantly thought of Charles.

 Charles: Irene reached out to me with a possible collaboration on a book at a time in my life when I needed, and had been working toward for years, an opportunity to break into the book business with a book of my own and not specifically having poems of mine in children’s poetry anthologies, which at the time had been my sole publications. It was opportunity meeting preparation because I was ready to go!

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In your book, two students are brought together for a school project and they are unsure about working together, not only because they are very different personalities, but because of the differences in their race. Did you find yourselves confronting any misperceptions or biases you didn’t realize you had?

Irene and Charles: One example that comes to mind involves the poem “Summer Reading” about THE BLACK STALLION by Walter Farley. This actually was a childhood favorite of Irene’s, and in an earlier draft of the poem the horse was referred to as “The Black,” just like in the book. Charles suggested that was possibly offensive, so we changed the poem. Later, after the book was final, our editor mentioned being disturbed by the fact that in THE BLACK STALLION there is a character described only as a “dark-skinned man.” This is the kind of subtle racism that changes our brains and takes conscious effort to re-shape. We are comforted by the fact that this kind of language/characterization would never pass muster in today’s publishing world! We are all learning.

We are all learning.

What is the most powerful lesson you learned from writing this book? What was the easiest part of writing the book? The hardest part?

Irene and Charles: We learned that no matter what your age, it takes courage, trust, and vulnerability to talk about race — and it is from that place where true friendship can grow. The easiest part was that once we got going, the poems came fast. We had a working draft of the manuscript within 3 weeks! The hardest part was cutting poems we cared about. A favorite poem that got cut was Willie Babe, about Irene’s (white) niece’s love for her black baby doll, which, as Charles says, is a  poem that dealt with, to quote the poem Walking Away by Cecil Day-Lewis, “How selfhood begins with a walking away, And love is proved in the letting go.”

How did your childhood experiences contribute to the narratives of each of the characters?

Irene and Charles: A fair number of the poems are if not true, then the spirit of them are true. For example, Charles had a teacher named Mrs. Vandenberg who pushed him to be his best self both in and out of the classroom. She was his high school teacher though, not his 5th grade one. Just like in the book, Irene was a quiet book and horse-loving kid, in part, due to moving 9 times and attending 11 different schools by the time she was 14. She really did want — and get — and Afro.

How do you hope parents, as well as teachers will use your book? What is one step parents and teachers can take right now to start a conversation about race?

Irene and Charles: Listen! Without interrupting. And bring into the home books and toys that show other cultures. Note — and celebrate! — differences. Allow children to be curious and ask questions — we are all learners! The quickest way to shut down a conversation, and to teach kids race isn’t to be talked about, is to scold.

Listen! Without interrupting.

I find poetry to be a perfect fit for every pre-literacy skill, but is often books parents shy away from the most. What books of poetry for young kids do you suggest to get families reading more poetry?

Irene and Charles: We love anthologies as a way to introduce readers to a bunch of styles and voices. Recent favorites include ONE MINUTE TILL BEDTIME, edited by Kenn Nesbitt; THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BOOK OF ANIMAL POETRY, edited by J. Patrick Lewis; FIREFLY JULY, edited by Paul Janeczko, THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR CELEBRATIONS, edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong; and SCHOOL PEOPLE (coming in February 2018), edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Some of these anthologies include our own poems.

Why do you think poetry intimidates people? Why do you think poetry draws us together?

Irene and Charles: Because poetry wasn’t properly taught in schools to many former students-now-teachers, it becomes an intimidating factor when passed down to their own students. Also, because poetry takes risks and isn’t always straightforward, it requires us to THINK and often, FEEL. That can be scary! But it you give it a minute, if you approach it with an open mind, poetry is SO accessible. It goes across many curriculums and can gets to the heart of the matter in the fewest words. It makes the ordinary extraordinary, it gives value to life.

Because poetry takes risks and isn’t always straightforward, it requires us to THINK and often, FEEL.

What do you believe is the biggest misbeliefs people have of poetry?

 Irene and Charles: I think many see poetry as superfluous — either unrelate-able and too-hard, or trite. Of course there are poems that fall into these categories. But poetry is an ocean! There’s a fish for every kind of reader! And hello, we NEED fish to survive. Our ecosystem depends on it and so we need beauty and the close attention of poetry — the way poetry can give us an experience in so few words and such a short amount of time. Poetry doesn’t have to be studied to a fare-thee-well in order to be understood. What a bunch of nonsense! Read poems out loud, enjoy them, move on.

Read poems out loud, enjoy them, move on.

Building Future readers hopes to build a lifelong habit of reading together. Do you read together as a family? What are your favorite books to share and why?

Irene: My husband Paul and I have three sons, now grown, and reading as a family was something we really enjoyed. Mostly we let the kids direct our reading, based on their interests — trucks, WWII, survival stories. A couple of titles that stand out as beloved by all: FEED by M.T. Anderson and HATCHET by Gary Paulsen. More recent titles I’d recommend: BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson, ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia, and ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO by N.H. Senzai.

Charles: While I don’t have any children, I do have gaggles of nieces and nephews and have made sure they have many books, signed by the author no less, a bunch of them also generously given to them by Irene as well, that are stored on a special shelf at their grandparent’s house and ready to be read at any time. Personally I can remember reading A KICK IN THE HEAD edited by Paul B. Janeczko and being knocked sideways at the different poetic forms each poet conquered, I also remember being impressed for years to come at the book BRONX MASQUERADE by Nikki Grimes and the anthologies SHARING THE SEASONS and AMERICA AT WAR both edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. A recent favorite of mine is the novel-in-verse INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai.

What is your memory of being read to as a child? Did you have a favorite book you listened to?

Irene: I was born to a super-reader father (he read at least a book a day his entire life!) and a schoolteacher mother, so yes, books, thankfully, have always been a part of my life. My early favorites were Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. One of my treasures is a video of my nearly 70 year old father reading “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” the same way he once read it to wee me while I sat on his knee.

Charles: Growing up I read THE BERENSTAIN BEARS series and Dr. Suess, as I got older it was the sports pages of the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. The three books that got me hooked on reading while becoming a teenager and young adult was OUT OF CONTROL: Confessions of an NFL Casualty by Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Peter Knobler, SHORT CUTS: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver and ORDINARY PEOPLE by Judith Guest.

Sadly, I didn’t get into poetry until I was 29 years old. It started with reading Jack Prelutsky before going into work by Marilyn Nelson, Nikki Grimes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Paul B. Janeczko, Valerie Worth and many, many more. It’s my mission to make sure it doesn’t take another human so long to get into this life changing form. Poetry is as accessible as blue skies, sunshine, rain, apple pie and checkered tablecloths. Trust it, it will never let you down.

Poetry is as accessible as blue skies, sunshine, rain, apple pie and checkered tablecloths. Trust it, it will never let you down.

Thank you, Jessica, so much for having us!

Thank you so much to Charles and Irene for their time and thoughtful answers! I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of online shopping to do now 🙂

Happy Reading

Author Interview: Michael Samulak

I am excited to interview a fellow Cleveland Author! I had the opportunity to meet Michael Samulak at our school book fair. I appreciated his education background and how he uses that knowledge to empower the books he writes. The inspiration for his book A is for Africa came while he was on a mission trip to Uganda. He met a local artist who he collaborated with to create his alphabet book. I emailed questions to Mr. Samulak, which he graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer.

I will review both of his books: A Wonderful Day! and A is For Africa. Please check back throughout the week for the book reviews!

Give a Building Future Readers welcome to Michael Samulak, our first author visit!

What makes you fall in love with a children’s book and how do you incorporate those techniques in your own writing?

A book that can I connect with on a deeper level is what I would have to say brings me to a level that I would call – love.  Pink and Say, by Patricia Polacco comes immediately to mind.  When feelings and connection flow so easily through you as a reader I believe you have a real winner.  Nothing is forced.  Nothing has to be explained.  Everything is just all there: ringing real and true within.

Now, incorporating such magic into my own writing is the challenge.  Writing a story that is perfectly balanced between mechanics and content while at the same time connects instantly with the reader – well, wherein lies the recipe for perfection, does it not?

I suppose I do what I can to write what is precious and real to me, from the heart.  If I cannot connect or be moved by my own work, I find it hard to believe that this would be happening with others who would pick it up.

Who are your favorite picture book authors? Why do you like him/her?

To pick favorites is almost unfair to ask.  I feel so many authors are masters in their own respects.  Their books can be vastly different, but still something I treasure equally.  That being said, I suppose I am a big fan of Patricia Polacco and Tomie dePaola probably for many of the same reasons I stated earlier concerning lovely books and finding love for a book.  I found both of these two authors early on in the days of my studying to be an early childhood educator.  Speaking to making connections and provoking literacy with early readers, I feel that both of these two are master storytellers who engage their young readers, (heck me!) in a way that swallows you up whole and transports one right into the narrative.  I would love to be able to say that I could one day, as I feel they do, fill page after page with emotion and heart that keeps one engaged till the very last period of the very last sentence: Truly, masters of the trade.

What do you hope your readers and listeners will find in your books?

a-wonderful-dayTheir world, their interests, depicted in a way that they not only connect with, but also affects them personally on many levels.  I love to help young readers along their literacy journey, utilizing my formal education in reading and teaching to blend content and presentation together in a way that is at their level and fun, funny, well written, and it has to be from their world (that is, their perspective and needs are attended to).  One of the best ways that I know how to help a young person to fall in love with reading is to give them stories that they are interested in.  I try to write not only in a way that is engaging, but also have my content be about something that they can relate to or that they care about.  A lot of my books are laced with learning moments that do aid emerging readers in becoming better readers, but the content is purposefully aimed at that same young readers’ interests and current real world experiences.

How do you hope parents use your books with their children?

I hope they read with them.  Interact with them.  Ask them questions and engage with them beyond the text so that young readers gain a full experience of reading.  I hope my books are loved and read, but I also hope that they enlarge and enrich the overall reading experience of those who read them to be more than words, more than the black and white that is immediately in front of them; that they grow and learn that there is a full and rich experience to reading that the reader is meant to have, and ought to have, while reading.

Is there a picture book you wish you had written? Why?

I think I can honestly say no to this question.  I feel that we all have our unique stories that are to be known and enjoyed by the world.  These come from unique experiences and people that basically I feel cannot be duplicated.  I so appreciate those who have been able to put their stories out for all of us to enjoy, but those are not my stories.  I have my own stories to tell, as I believe we all do, and so have learned to simply love, enjoy, grow from and appreciate that which has come forth from others.

What is your best tip for parents to help build future readers?

Be involved in your child’s literacy journey.  Read to them.  Speak with them about what you read, engage them with the text; help them make connections to their hearts and minds.  Talk with them about what you are reading, what you enjoy from what you are reading, what you find difficult about reading.  Let them see and know that you too are a reader and how much of an important part reading and literacy overall is to a happy and successful life in this world.

Make it practical and personal: Take them to the library.  Buy them books – and you buy one with them.  Have a reading party and talk together as a family over cookies or popcorn about what you have been reading.  What made you laugh, what made you cry – Why?  Have a family library that they also contribute to every year.  Signing them up for long-term subscriptions to an age-appropriate magazine is always a great way to build a future reader: Who doesn’t like getting something in the mail with their name on it!

I feel that we learn very early on what our parents and adults truly ascribe value to:  what is taking our time, our money, our hearts?  Our children see it – They know it.  Reading has to be one of those things.  It takes a real conscious effort on our part to make sure that our children not only hear from us the value and need for reading, but also practically see it and know it to be more than words in our own lives and how we would practically bring literacy into theirs.

Are you working on any new projects?

Short answer: Yes indeed.  I have been working on a few pieces so that I can hopefully present to an agent who is willing to take me on and work with me as I step further on in the next chapter of this beautiful journey I have been on as a writer.  I’ve have been trying to branch out with these new projects to touch not only the early readers and Children’s Picture Books that I am comfortable with, but also a few that are a bit risky in that they attempt to address issues and matters that children today are having to face or deal with, such as the loss of a loved one.  I don’t want to say too much more here…spoil the soup that’s cooking and all, ya know!

Anything else you would like us to know?

I am a husband and father of five children.  They are my world.  So much of what I write about is inspired by them, and for them.  My books are a sort of extension, not just of me, but also of my family and so I hope that when people read my works they touch that, they feel that, and come to realize that it is more than stories but also a bit of me and my own family that is hiding behind those words.

Connect with Michael Samulak

(I am an Amazon Affiliate. I do not get paid to review books. The opinions are mine. However, if you click on the pictures it will take you to Amazon, where if you make purchases I will receive a percentage of the sale.)

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