By Maureen Tai, 6 March 2020
“When our teacher says,
Pick a partner,
my body freezes
like a ship in ice.” – Irene
“… Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.” – Charles
Two students who aren’t friends find themselves randomly paired up for a poetry project. Irene and Charles embark uneasily on their assignment, knowing only one thing about each other – what they look like. Irene has pale white skin and golden blonde hair. Charles has short curly black hair and skin the colour of warm cocoa. So far, so different. Will they make this work?
Resigned to their fate, the duo tentatively brainstorm on topics for their poetry. Charles suggests four simple subjects that they likely have in common: shoes, hair, school and church. Irene agrees. She begins with a tercet (a poem in one or more stanzas of three lines) about the shoes of her dreams while Charles describes, in free verse, when he and his dad went shoe-shopping. The children are similarly torn between what they want and what their parents think is best for them. Irene wants to soar in “ruby shoes” and dance in “glass slippers” and Charles wants “neon high-tops with tie-dye laces” so he can “fit in” with his classmates. However, Irene’s mum insists on “sensible” shoes and Charles’ dad recommends comfort over style. Both poems end with the children accepting, and becoming reconciled with, their parents’ point of view.
In the next set of poems, Irene and Charles describe their experiences with their hair. Irene had once wanted to have an Afro. Her mother obliged with a cut and a perm, but it only caused her brothers to laugh at her and call her a “circus clown.” Charles has his hair touched by a classmate without his permission, and he is infuriated by it. Uninvited, Charles roughly touches his classmate’s hair, declaring that it “feels like a mop.” Having “different” hair invites unwanted attention, so Irene reverts to her natural state by leaving her hair “long and straight” so she can “hide behind” it, whereas Charles responds angrily to his classmate’s actions in tit-for-tat fashion.
The poems are eloquent and honest snapshots of moments in Irene and Charles’ lives, accompanied by simple yet effective mixed-media illustrations. As the writings proliferate – about beach days, hobbies, playground friendships, dinner conversations, parental discipline and city life, among other things – we learn more about the two children. It is like peeling back the layers of an onion, but without the tearing eyes. Irene is an introvert and a gifted pianist, most at home when she is riding her horse with whom she can communicate wordlessly. Charles is spirited and vocal, a natural writer who chafes at the racism he faces because he is black. They have strict yet loving families who try to protect them and teach them values. They struggle with making friends at school. They face similar highs and lows, despite how dissimilar they look.
But what is truly wonderful about this picture book is that in the process of working together on their poetry project and pouring their deepest anxieties and unspoken thoughts into their written words, we witness Irene and Charles learning more about each other and growing to accept each other for who they are. As the project draws to a satisfying conclusion, the two classmates ultimately come together as friends. Surely this is how we overcome prejudices and misconceptions about those we know little about – we try to get to know them, to understand them – and we do so with honesty, compassion and patience. If only more of us heeded this advice.
For ages 8 and above.