The Shelf Care Interview: Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Lerner.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Irene Latham and Charles Waters.

Irene Latham is the author of many books, including two novels for children, Leaving Gee’s Bend and Don’t Feed the Boy, winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. Her poetry books for children include Dear Wandering Wildebeest, When the Sun Shines on Antarctica, and the award-winning Can I Touch Your Hair? with Charles Waters. Irene lives on a lake in Alabama, where she does her best to live her poem every single day.

Charles Waters is a children’s poet, actor, and the aforementioned coauthor of Can I Touch Your Hair? His poems have appeared in various anthologies, including 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. He lives in New York City. Their book, Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, released earlier last month from the Lerner imprint Carolrhoda.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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MAGGIE REAGAN: Thank you for joining me, Irene and Charles.

IRENE LATHAM: Oh, thank you so much for having us.

Oh, no, my pleasure. Let’s talk about Dictionary for a Better World. Can you each tell me a little bit about the pieces that make up this gorgeous book and how it all came together?

CHARLES WATERS: It happened on a snowy Friday in February of 2018. Irene and I had a school that canceled on us, a snow day. We were there for five days. On our fifth day, we had a snow storm. So, we are in a Panera Bread, waiting for our respective flights when we get an email from our editor, Carol Hinz, the editorial director of Lerner, rejecting a poetry proposal Irene and I had sent. She said if we had anything else to send her, to please do so. Irene, in a nanosecond, whipped her notebook out of her bag, and we started going back and forth on different ideas for books, Dictionary being one of them.

LATHAM: Yeah.

WATERS: We submitted all of these ideas, and then that’s what happened. They picked Dictionary.

LATHAM: I will just add that I think the reason that Dictionary kind of popped up in our conversation was because we had just spent this amazing time with these kids, and we were listening to them talk about conversations they were having about race, issues that they had in their class, how they were working together to make it a more inclusive environment. I think we really were struck by their courage and their honesty, and we kind of wanted to push ourselves, which is how we ended up choosing to write poems in forms that we had not before experienced, really pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and just kind of trying to extend the work of Can I Touch Your Hair?, which is, of course, about acceptance and inclusivity and meeting people where they are. Kind of what we saw with these kids was that it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference, and one of the best things that we can do is focus on the changes that we can make in ourselves. Sometimes, they may feel very small, but if we’re all doing it, then we can make big changes.

So, when we thought about what that looked like, we knew we wanted to include words from others. We’re learners. We’re not experts, and so that’s where the quote piece came from. We wanted to, as I mentioned, share their honesty and tell about our own lives, relate to them with experiences that we’ve have had as kids. So that’s how the nonfiction, anecdote piece came in. We wanted to give them something, just something tiny that they could do that wouldn’t require anybody’s help, just the individual reader reading the book. So, that’s how we’re looking at the “try it” piece of the book as well.

How do you, as cowriters, approach creating a project like this?

WATERS: With a lot of trust and the miracle of twenty-first century technology. As you mentioned in the introduction, I live in New York City, and she lives in Alabama. Because of Microsoft Word and Google Docs and emails, we would send ideas back and forth. Through that, the book took shape, both with Can I Touch Your Hair? and Dictionary For a Better World. So it takes a lot of understanding and respect of each other and not being too hard on ourselves and not feeling like we’re measuring up for each other as writing partners. At least, that’s been my experience working with Irene.

LATHAM: Yeah, I would echo that. Charles just pointed out to me yesterday that we have just passed the five-year mark from when we started working together on Can I Touch Your Hair? and it was just kind of shocking because our friendship has just really become such an important part of my life. We’re working on another big project together. So it’s almost like it’s hard for me to remember what life was like before I was collaborating with Charles, but now that it’s been five years, it just feels like, “Wow, really? It’s been five years?” So it’s been a life-changing experience. I never, as an introverted person who tends to be pretty solitary, imagined that I would be willing to collaborate with someone and that I would enjoy it so much and that it would add so much meaning to the experience of bringing a book into the world.

“Children’s poets are the investigative reporters of our universe.”

What inspires you as creators?

LATHAM: Oh, everything. The view outside my window, what other people are saying behind me. I’m a terrible eavesdropper. I’m often inspired by that. I’m inspired by books . . . I just have a lot of curiosities. I think I’m very much driven by trying to answer questions and writing so much is about discovery, and this book was no different, trying to discover: what does gratitude mean to me? What is that? What is acceptance in my life? So, I think it’s about discovery. I’m always wanting to address the questions that I have for the world.

WATERS: I agree with that. I think writing as well as acting—I read this in some interview yesterday—and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t remember who said it, but it was: acting is self-examination. I think writing is the same thing as well. When you’re subjective and you’re just writing, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. Every day, you’re writing. Then, once you get a little objectivity and look at something a couple months later, you’ll see sort of like a story being told of what you may have been thinking on the day you were writing. Writing—and acting—for me, has made me more of a self-aware person, and I think having self-awareness is healthy in society. Writing and acting makes you look at the world differently. I always say that children’s poets are the investigative reporters of our universe. Our universe is a pretty big space. So, it’s about looking, as Irene said, looking at the world around you in all different shapes and sizes and visuals and just exploring what it means to be human.

What role have libraries in schools played in your reading and writing lives?

LATHAM: Oh, huge. Huge. As an avid reader, my whole life long, some of my books have come directly from my reading experience. As I mentioned, this book had everything to do with a school visit to amazing kids, just bearing witness and being a part of their lives. We’re so grateful that teachers and librarians have invited us to share that time with kids. Charles and I love to talk about how neither of us had authors visit our schools when we were young. So it’s such a full circle kind of thing to be able to be an author coming into a room. Who knows where that goes in the future, what future authors are sitting in those rooms? It’s an honor and a privilege to share the space. So I’m always so filled with gratitude to be able to do it.

WATERS: I didn’t have any librarians, growing up, that really took an interest in myself or their jobs going through school. Now, it may have been because looking back, I may not have been as interested in what they were trying to teach, or they didn’t see anything to spark my interest. As Irene said, we didn’t have authors come to our school for visits. So if that would’ve happened, I think that would have changed the trajectory of my life a lot sooner, which is why we’re both so passionate about author visits. We’re both passionate about librarians. I mean, I think librarians, I said this before, are magical people. They’re the gateway to education and reading and writing.

I once said something in college to an education major, and I was being silly. She was going to teach kindergarten, and I said, “So, what are you going to do? Teach them how to glue things together?” I’m being sarcastic. She said as honest and as real as anything I’ve ever heard in my life, she said, “No, I’m going to teach them how to read and write.” It shut me up. This is going on 28 years ago, something like that, but it humbled me, especially the more I get into being into reading and writing and acting. Educators, librarians in particular, are just wonderful. I’m so grateful to know them and spend time with them, and they’d tell me about books, and I looked them up myself. I read something, and then I . . . Yeah. I could go on and on. So, I apologize for rambling, but I’m a big believer in librarians and education and books. Hooray for librarians and the 811 section of the library, the poetry section.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Lerner, publisher of Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes and Anecdotes from A to Z. Available now.

About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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