Columnist Razvan Sibii: Picture books about incarceration

Published: 2/17/2020 5:16:34 PM

Sometime during the 1980s, while volunteering in the notorious Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland, children’s librarian Liz Weir heard a story that has stayed with her ever since.

The story was that of a little boy who screamed in horror when he saw his incarcerated father walk toward him in the visitors room: he had only ever seen his father sitting down across the table from him, and he now feared his father was a giant.

The story was plausible. Many of the children whose parents Weir worked with inside struggled to make sense of the many rules that regulated their ability to do something as simple as hug their mother or father. So the librarian did what librarians do: she looked for a book to help. She couldn’t find any, so she wrote one herself.

“I believe that children are strong, strong individuals who need to know what’s going on in their families,” Weir told me. “I work with teachers who sometimes are unaware that the child’s parent is in jail, or else it’s something they don’t talk about. It’s a really good thing to make it something that’s not hidden away. Children are living with this every day, you know?”

“ ‘Pri-son! Pri-son!’

Milly ran along the street, trying not to hear the children shouting behind her. Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen when Milly burst into the room.

‘They’re saying Dad’s in prison,” said Milly, trying not to cry. “I told them he was away working, but everyone laughed at me!’ She stopped as she saw the scared look on Mum’s face.

Nan gave her a hug. ‘It is true, love. We didn’t know how to tell you.’

‘What did he do wrong?’ asked Milly. “Mum, when’s Dad coming home?’

Mum’s voice was very quiet. ‘He won’t be back for a long time,’ she said. ‘He stole something that didn’t belong to him. Nan’s going to stay with us to help look after you and Sam. I’ll take you to see Dad as soon as I can.’” (Liz Weir, “When Dad Was Away”).

According to a 2018 report by the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota, more than 5.7 million minors, one in 12 American kids, have had a parent incarcerated at some point, a phenomenon that has devastating psychological and social consequences. African-American children are seven times more likely than white children to have a parent who is incarcerated. How do you even begin to tell their stories?

That was the question Julia Cook wrestled with, when she was asked by an nongovernmental organization that served educators and counselors to write a story that could answer a simple question: “How do we talk to kids about their parents being in prison?”

An accomplished writer, Cook looked for an answer in the most logical place she could think of: the words of incarcerated parents.

“My research entailed acquiring, through many different sources, about 300 letters from inmates to their kids. Because if I’m gonna write a book about an incarcerated parent for a child, I wanna know what the parents who have walked that path want the kids to know. And in 98% of those letters, the parent said, ‘Stay away from drugs and alcohol,’” Cook told me.

The book she ended up writing, “What Do I Say About That? Coping with an Incarcerated Parent,” features a boy working through his feelings of anger and guilt on his way to building a meaningful relationship with his imprisoned father.

Predictably enough, picture books about incarcerated parents aren’t bestsellers. But none of the authors I spoke to particularly minded that.

“I think that people who have somebody in prison maybe can’t afford to buy that many books,” said Pat Brisson, author of “Mama Loves Me From Away.” “So it (the book) is not being sold to that niche. I think that schools and public libraries bought it. It’s been out of print for a number of years now and I didn’t expect it to be a huge seller. But I feel that those children deserve to be represented in literature — just like that little kid who’s living with both parents in happy suburbia.”

“That Sunday, Grammy had good knees and we had no problems with the buses. I carried Mama’s card extra carefully so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. When we got there, Mama was waiting for us with a big smile on her face.

‘Happy Birthday, Sugar!’ she said, hugging me hard.

‘Happy Birthday, Mama!’ I said, hugging her and breathing in the smell of her hair and skin.

‘You are getting so grown up!’ Mama said. ‘I can hardly believe you were ever my tiny baby.’

‘But I was your baby, Mama, wasn’t I? Tell me the story.’

So she did. I closed my eyes and put my head against her chest and listened to the story straight from her heart just like I did when we were at home. And with my eyes closed, the strangers disappeared and I could pretend it was just Mama and me.” (Pat Brisson, “Mama Loves Me From Away”).

Other books

Ten other kids’ resources about incarceration:

1. Daniel Beaty, “Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me”

2. Jacqueline Woodson, “Visiting Day”

3. Karen Rivers, “The Girl in the Well Is Me”

4. Becky Birtha, “Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated”

5. Anthony Curcio, “My Daddy’s in Jail”

6. Mariame Kaba, “Missing Daddy”

7. Q. Futrell, “Our Moms (Living with Incarcerated Parents)”

8. Melissa Higgins, “The Night Dad Went to Jail: What to Expect When Someone You Love Goes to Jail”

9. Janet Bender, “My Daddy Is in Jail: Story, Discussion Guide, & Small Group Activities for Grades K-5”

10. Sesame Street episodes featuring Alex, a Muppet whose father is in jail.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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