Later this month, many of us will be celebrating a variety of holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and so on. We may be looking forward to a whole host of things: eating special foods, gifts, time off from work, rest and relaxation, traveling, and spending time with family and other loved ones. For families with a parent currently incarcerated, however, the reality is very different.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, nearly 1.5 million children have an incarcerated parent. A 2015 report "found that more than five million children, representing seven percent of all U.S. children, have ever had a parent" in the carceral system. It follows, then, that there are families in our community who are currently experiencing the distance and isolation commonly associated with being incarcerated. During the holidays, that distance and isolation, often compounded by financial demands, can make this season an undue burden.
As I've written before, picture books can help both children and adults process strong feelings, or ask big questions. In this blog post, we will be discussing picture books available in our collection that deal with the subject of parental incarceration. These books can help us begin complex conversations in age appropriate ways. While there may be some folks who think that incarceration is too adult a topic to address with young children, the reality is that millions of children in the United States (as we just read above) are affected by the carceral system. Children of all backgrounds need books that serve mirrors and windows into all sorts of lives and experiences.
Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One is Incarcerated is a good book with which to start a conversation around parental incarceration. The text features vignettes of different children dealing with the aftermath of a parent's incarceration, and working through many feelings as a result. Some children are afraid, or angry; others are sad at being separated from their family.
A child with an incarcerated parent may have lots of questions, some of which may be hard to ask and hard to answer. Other children may find that other people now act differently towards them because they have parent who is incarcerated. The book provides examples of ways other people can be kind to a child in this situation: a coach puts an immediate end to bullying, for example, and a girl promises to stand by her friend regardless of the opinions of others.
The text also shows different ways incarcerated parents and their children keep in touch: letters, phone calls, and visits. From personal experience, I have seen how fiercely incarcerated parents want to be in their children's lives, and how much effort they put into the endeavor. Unfortunately, keeping in touch can be extraordinarily expensive; families have to pay to make calls to incarcerated family members, mail letters, and even send emails. This of course makes the family contact that research shows is beneficial to both children and their incarcerated parents all the more difficult.
In Far Apart, Close in Heart, children are encouraged to tell someone how they feel about what they are going through; it just might make things better. In the text, teachers, grandparents, and other adults listen to them with patience and understanding. An author's note at the end of the book advises parents, caregivers, teachers, and counselors to do the same, to answer children's questions truthfully, and to assure them they are not alone.
Taken from a powerful spoken word performance from artist and activist Daniel Beaty and illustrated by multiple Coretta Scott King Award recipient Bryan Collier, Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me is a heart-rending story about the relationship between a young boy and his doting father.
Every morning a boy and his father play a "knock knock" game: the boy pretends to be asleep when his father knocks and enters his room. It is only once his father is right next to the bed that the boy joyfully gives up his ruse by jumping into his father's arms.
But one day the boy's father is not there to knock on the door. He is gone, and his son misses him. There are things he wants to learn from his dad, and he is not there to teach him. One day, a letter comes, and inside are words suffused with all the love and hope his father has for him.
Like the book's protagonist, author Daniel Beaty's father was his primary caregiver prior to being incarcerated. The incarceration of a parent can result in the loss of a primary caregiver, a family breadwinner, or stable housing. The destabilizing nature of incarceration all too often results in a "shared sentence" for families, one that does not exclude even the youngest children.
Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, creators of the Newberry Award winning Last Stop on Market Street, give us yet another touching and timely picture book in Milo Imagines the World. A young boy traveling on the New York City subway imagines all sorts of things about the lives of his fellow passengers, but learns that people are not always who they seem at first glance.
Milo is "a shook-up soda" as he sits on the subway with his older sister. It is Sunday, and although this trip is a monthly occurrence, he cannot contain himself. To pass the time, Milo "studies the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives." The man with the whiskered face is going home to a five floor walkup apartment, full of clutter and cats. There is a woman in a bridal dress, making her way to her wedding in a grand cathedral.
There is also a boy the same age as Milo, dressed in a suit and spotless white Nikes. Milo imagines him going home to a castle complete with a moat and drawbridge, where a butler, two maids, and a chef are there at his beck and call. Milo wonders what people see when they look at his own face—certainly not a castle with a moat and drawbridge like the boy in the suit.
But upon arriving at his and his sister's destination, Milo is surprised to see the boy from the subway, waiting in the same line, going through the same metal detector. Both boys are there to visit women wearing the same orange jumpsuit. Milo's chest fills with excitement when he sees his mother, and soon he is wrapped up in a hug with her and his sister. Milo has one last picture to share, and it's of his family, together.
Picture Books About Incarceration
For more picture books about incarceration, including the ones highlighted in this blog post, be sure to see the widget above. There are not many books about this important subject, but luckily there are more books being published every year. For example, five of the books on the list were published just in the last three years. Some are based on an author's direct experience with an incarcerated family member, while others were inspired by the author's work with incarcerated persons and their families.
Incarceration affects millions of children and their families, and books can help us know that we are not alone, or to see that it does not serve anyone to alienate children coping with incarceration. The holidays can be a time of celebration, but they can also be a time to be kinder, more compassionate, and welcoming.