For kids with family members who have been incarcerated
Pitfalls to avoid while reading these stories
- Myth: BIPOC are more likely to be incarcerated because of an innate criminality
- Most of the books about incarceration and violence that I can find, particularly the biographies, feature families of color. Make sure your kids know that this is NOT because parents of color are more likely to break the law. But DO discuss how A. Families of color are most often left with fewer resources and have bigger challenges to face when it happens and B. Colonization and the prison pipeline has been actively and intentionally designed to incarcerate BIPOC, particularly Black people. And C. The depiction of families of color encountering law enforcement comes from whitewashing – white families unwilling to talk about it, white authors appropriating characters of color to tell their stories, and white publishers unwilling to connect white families with criminality.
- Myth: Law enforcement applies to everyone and justice is blind.
- Nope. The current justice system is designed to incarcerate people with less power. Due to capitalism, power is strongly correlated with wealth.
- The system that holds wealthier people accountable is a free* and open press – journalism. Wealth protects us from arrests and buys us out of convictions, giving the wealthy more opportunities to escape accountability – particularly in a country without journalistic integrity and a cultural mistrust of journalists.
- I am STILL searching for good books to explain the corruption of our cash bail system.
- *By free, I mean free speech, not free as in you don’t have to pay for it. Taxes pay for the justice system. It does not pay for good journalism – that’s on us to pay for. Don’t confuse journalism with the media. Media is free/cheap, journalism is best with a direct and transparent line of reader-funding. The media is anyone who speaks loudly enough for lots of folks to hear. Journalism requires proper vetting, fact-checking, accountability, and ethical rigor. We should read media with a critical eye and understanding of who benefits from us getting this information. We should also read journalism with a critical eye, but also support it when we find accountability gold. I don’t consider my work journalism. I am not a trained journalist and do not have the resources of a organization that can maintain these practices. I vet my resources to the full extent that I can, but I encourage you to view my work as media. To decide for yourself, I invite you to check out my statement of accountability.
About this booklist:
- All of these books are analyzed through the lens of transformative community justice. Which means we do not demonize people who are incarcerated.
- We do not use 911 or racist/ culturally inappropriate systems as a first resort to conflict.
- We do not judge people who must resort to calling in law enforcement for their own protection.
- We totally do judge people who use law enforcement as a personal bouncer for their own comfort.
- Every member of a family impacted by incarceration is a human with worth and value and a need of support.
- If you’re an Collaborator-level Patron or higher, you get sneak-peek access to my content library – rough-draft lists with bonus content, which are a-work in-progress as I plow through more books each week. Sometimes I open these up to the public when there is an urgent need. Due to the nature of this content, this list will remain permanently free and accessible. If you’d like to support my work so I can keep doing that, you can join our patreon community here.
- I’m trying to publish my billions of private archives quickly, without fiddling with the details. These are bare-bones book lists that assume:
- You’ve been following BFL for a while
- You understand that not all books are for all readers
- These are not formatted for public consumption (no fancy links, some cussing, these are basically brain-barf.)
- Click here to go back to the unpolished book collections main page.
This post may contain affiliate links, which allow me to earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Check out the full affiliate disclosure along with the BFL statement of accountability. I use bookshop.org links when possible, or Amazon when they aren’t.
Books & Notes:
- Also see: Booklist for Domestic Violence
- Also see: Booklist for separation anxiety
- Also see: Booklist for immigrant families separated at the border – this has a lot of books to help kids deal with feelings over having a parent imprisoned, particularly:
- Carmela Full of Wishes – Carmela’s story is about way more than her wish for her father’s papers to come through so he can come home. But it’s a poignant part of the story, as she thinks of all the things she wishes could come true.
- Mango Moon – A young girl wrestles with missing her father, who has been abruptly seized and imprisoned for not having documentation. In a logical cascading series of events, her mother is forced to support the family on her own, they lose their home, and the future of her family is left unsure.
- Mama’s Nightingale – A young girl misses her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Haiti detained at the border. This one is a little more surreal and my kids found it harder to engage with the story, but it alludes to more of what the detained parent is going through (gently.) Click here for the ADL’s reading guide for this book.
- If families have members who are incarcerated, money might be tight. If that is the chase, check out our collection on wealth inequality.
Validating stories for children whose family members are incarcerated
- Far Apart, Close at heart: Being a family when a loved one is incarcerated – Not for outsiders. It sets a reductive tone for kids whose parents are in prison (particularly eyoreish and aggressive) but validating book for kids whose parents are in prison. validates lots of conflicting feelings toward parents in jail, other kids who don’t understand, etc. Attempt at diverse representation: Black girl with White and Black lesbian moms, equal mix of moms and dads in jail. Latina girl in foster care because both of her parents are in prison. Asian girl with mom in prison. validates how isolating and uncertain this makes kids feel. so sad that this is one of the most diverse cast of families I’ve seen. “Atian tells his teacher how frustrated he feels with his father gone. Atian says, “Three years in prison for him isn’t fair to me!” Not sure how i feel about all the kids looking depressed and sad and only parents, friends, and foster parents have bright smiles. kinda sends the message the kids aren’t allowed to feel joy while parents are locked up. I’m not 100% on board with the last page: “I’m here because I broke the law.” Which is simplistic only true for some families – and implies that the prison system is a healthy thing that exists for a good reason. End notes: “Often children are confused because hey have learned that only bad people go to jail. Keeping in mind that very parent is an important part of a child’s sense of self, a caregiver can explain that the issue is not whether a parent is good or bad person; is whether they have broken the law.” – why didn’t they say that in the book? I’m not a fan of the way the author tap-danced around that with implications instead of stating it clearly for kids within the story. “Children may feel encouraged to learn that many adults work for prison reform, criminal justice reform, and ending mass incarceration” – again , why isn’t that in the book?!
- The Night dad went to jail – validating for kids who were there when dad was arrested. validating, cute illustrations, and clearly places blame on the parent instead of the child. Dad says during visit “I messed up, Sketch,” Dad says.’ What I did caused a lot of problems, and I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me.” So caveat for whitewashing – This doesn’t address families impacted by wrongful arrest.
- When Dad was away – bland, maybe validating for kids whose dad went to prison, but there are better books out there. white girl, white family. as typical – erases industrial prison complex and issues of poverty “He won’t be back for a long time,” she said. “He stole something that didn’t belong to him.” and there’s an unnecessary and christmas scene. but at least this book shows that white christian families are not immune to crime!
- Visiting day – a little girl’s day-in-the-life with her grandmother visiting her dad in prison. speaks to the incarceration & effect of imprisoning so many black men, end notes talk about how this was the #OwnVoices experience of both writer and illustrator and dispels shame while acknowledging longing and sadness of children waiting to have their fathers free again. prison pipeline & prison industrial complex
- The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett – A young boy charged with raising himself and caring for his infant brother while his mother goes out. The story spends a small amount of time discussing his father, who is absent due to imprisonment. SEe the maker spotlight here. Disclosure: I got a free review copy from Dottir Press
- Knock KNock: My Dad’s Dream For Me – The reason for the father’s sudden absence is ambiguous but I have vague memories that this is either an #OwnVoices author’s experience with a father who was arrested, or the story is intended as a comfort for kids in this situation. (So it can also be used for sudden abandonment or death). Prison industrial complex & prison pipeline
- Mister And Lady Day – I’m not super wild about how vague this story is, and it’s not even clear who it’s for. But if it works for anything, this would be the list. The book alludes to Billie Holiday’s leaving to an unknown place for a year (in the end notes only do we find out it was prison), and how Lady Day missed her dog (who is supposed to be the character kids are to empathize with, I guess.) It’d require a good deal of gymnastics to get this one sorted into a story kids can see a reflection in, but might be helpful for families to traumatized to say the words that are really happening.
- Hazelnut days – zau – validating book for older kids – Supposed to be validating for kid who visits father in prison, how he can both miss and admire his dad while also fearing his father’s aggression and not being proud of the fact that he’s in prison. trauma, abuse, prison (dad). Illustrations and surprise twist at the end make this appropriate for maybe 8?, the illustrations and subtleties are too abstract for younger kids.
Books about incarceration for civil rights
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.booklist
- The Youngest Marcher
- The Case For Loving – This is the only book for this age range, so we have to settle for it. The writing is…not good. I don’t need to know how thin Mildred Jeter is and it has nothing to do with the story. I’m not a fan of the exclamation points, and they feel condescending, like how people talk in that paternalizing voice to small children. the author also references ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ in a way that makes me cringe a little. written by a white Jewish wife and black husband team. It’s a fine book, but not as great as it could be if they had hired a real writer (they are both illustrators). Reading to 3&5 wasn’t that bad. R2 couldn’t sit still through it, but Q found it interesting enough to sit through for a full read, and we talk about how it would be illegal for our families to be together not so long ago in a place not so far away. what it would be like to have the police bang on our door and tell us we have to move away from home and family or go to jail, multiracial miscegenation, willful disobedience
- Loving Vs. Virginia – The author took so much artistic license with the story that it’s just plain hard to trust her. It’s also written above the heads of younger kids – best for tweens and older.
- Miss Paul And The President – Biography of Alice Paul. basically a marketing genius party planner who knew how to draw attention, and used that attention for white ladies’ sufferage. book included ONLY white people and I had to ask Q who was missing (he couldn’t tell) women’s history (american), disruption (went to jail for refusing to leave white house grounds), white feminism. this is weird – because the illustrator is Nancy Zhang (hard to look up, common name), what I assume is a Chinese AAPI illustrator – and Alice Paul didn’t do shit to get us the vote. (Not in the book: According to unverified sources, Alice Paul was racist against black folks, anti-Semitic, and at the very least, wasn’t outspoken FOR women of color to vote. Paul actively discouraged black women from attending the march (although some did anyway, such as Ida B. Wells) and Asian women attended these marches, but we couldn’t vote until 1952. Problematic for deep whitewashing.
- Mama went to jail for the vote – i like the idea, but it was soooo boring and i tried multiple times to get 6yo to sit through it and he just couldn’t. even i didn’t really follow what was going along, set too far in the past from a perspective we have no engagement with. white feminism, sufferage, willful disobedience
- The case of the missing chalk drawings – they blame the eraser for erasing and try to put it in jail, but the eraser is doing what it has to to clear the board so they can keep drawing. its’ fine, but bland. could be used for a super allegorical intro on wrongful imprisonment BUT I worry that it could go the other way and reinforce assumptions of innate race or ability-based criminality
- She stood for freedom – biography of white civil rights accomplice joan trumpauer mulholland – written by her son, who also made a movie about her. not a story. repeatedly references “blacks” which is not ideal. illustrations are weird stylistic collages of photos with pastel coloring over them. Joan went to prison in the fight for civil rights. Inserted herself into an all-black college (Tougaloo) …uhhh. While the book doesn’t address how problematic it is for people with power to invade an affinity space, I highly suggest readers discuss this with their kiddos as to how not to be an accomplice. Joan went on to participate in diner sit-in. If the illustrations helped kids identify with joan, rather than making it seem like a very long-ago history of how heroic this white woman was, i would TRY to read this with kids. but they are weirdly abstract and almost violent. my kids would feel no connection to this woman. overall she’s kind of like an everyday foot soldier and didn’t do anything hugely spectacular. not sure why there is a book about her when the Black folks next to her did the same – except for the Black folks who survived – their kids didn’t have the resources to publish books and movies about them. All of this feels weird. white accomplices, racism, women’s history, not quite saviorism, but still feels weird and is definitely white-centered
- Toussaint L’ouverture – illustrations too abstract to engage kids. black Caribbean history, haiti, liberation from slavery, starts with colonizers & columbus showing up and killing off most of the Tainos. Columbus day, colonization, slavery. plain statements of violence and colonization, which i love, but it’s too dry for 6, esp paired with flat, muted images. references “enslaved africans, blacks, mulattos, whites” so maybe discuss updated terminology with your kiddos. revolt & rebellion. violence, war, and disruption. L’ouverture overthrew french & took over the country, prepared a constitution and abolished slavery. then won against the Spanish. agreed to truce with invading Napoleon, but was betrayed as soon as he put his weapons down. died in french prison while his people continued the fight and won. plainly stated, this would be awesome to try again in second grade. #OwnVoices Black makers (men), black history, central Cmerica, revolt, disruption, revolution. Throwing this in here just to keep my prison pipeline books together – Although for this purpose, maybe a book where the person in prison dies isn’t a great story to read to kids with a parent in prison.
Gandhi for kids, his life and ideas – Problematic activity book for lesson planning. not a read aloud story. didn’t read in entirety, but while the book references racism against him, it never touches on his anti-blackness. violence and abuse toward his wife is briefly mentioned, but only as a teaching lesson for him, she seems to exist as a tool for him to use to gain his own enlightenment (which the writer of this book seems to find acceptable.) Given the depth and length of the book, it could have discussed more criticisms of how he learned, and the impact on the people he used to learn from, but didn’t. this doesn’t sit well with me and almost gives the impression that his behaviors are okay because he got something out of them in the end. which is messed up.
Gandhi a march to the sea Of all the ghandhi books, both kids didn’t want to read this one the most because of the unengaging bland cover. But this is the best one about disruption. i do like this storytelling, but suspect kids won’t be happy to sit through it due to the bleh illustrations until 8+
A Taste of Freedom Gandhi and the great salt march – this one makes me SUPER uncomfortable. The cover was engaging enough that R2 @5 is willing to read it more than the others (aside from the little people big ideas Gandhi bio). narrated by fictional boy. I’m not a fan of the way gandhi is seen as some sort of divine prophet “The Mahatma! The Great Soul!” the boy talks about him (and the illustrations reinforce this) as if he’s some sort of divine being on earth. Which is the exact OPPOSITE of what gandhi tried to teach us. the story places him on a pedestal, and gives the impression that he contains some life force that the rest of us don’t – removing the reader from any responsibility to do courageous things. very static mindset. gandhi comes off as fearless, and his frailty is seen as divide, rather than something he’s accepting and working through “And though he looks thin and fragile, like a bird, Mahatma Gandhi always leads the way.” “Even our Mahatma himself was now imprisoned, but he was not afraid.” as if! like only folks who are brave can be leaders? NOPE NOPE NOPE problematic. which is a shame because the narration of the impact of the salt march is well done, and it highlights how inspiring his leadership was. but yikes.
- The Rebellious Alphabet – starts great, but falls apart at the end. We do have to pause and discuss how the author chose to capitalize on size discrimination to code the dictator as petty and ignorant (by making him distinctly short and calling him ‘little’) We discussed how this intersects with childism and ableism – depicting children and smaller adults as diminutive in intelligence and ability, ignorant and lacking competence. We can get past that and use this problematic book as a lesson – BUT the story kind of falls apart at the end, like they finished it in a rush. The dictator self-imprisons himself for unclear reasons (his outfit changes, and that makes him feel like a prisoner so he never leaves his castle and stops bossing people around for some reason.) And the writer who broke the law and wrote for liberty is just released from prison for no apparent reason. Highly symbolic, so best for kids 7+ on free press and freedom of speech as integral to democracy. dictatorships, authoritarian rulers, bad leaders, censorship, liberty, activism. #OwnVoices – Diaz is latinx (born in chile, political exile)
- Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace – I’m sure you’ve seen me wax poetic about this book elsewhere. STAGGERINGLY GOOD.
Problematic – DO NOT RECOMMEND
- DO NOT RECOMMEND. The Legend of the valentine – started off strong, with a black boy thinking about his father in jail for no reason – i was excited about this! and how he has a bully at school that makes fun of him using a brown crayon for drawing skin. then the bullying keeps going overboard – he’s becoming such a clear victim that he’s almost a punching bag – it’s so othering and hard to empathize with, inspiring the reader to be like “OMG stand up for yourself already!” which is not the bootstraps-style thinking we want to encourage. then we learn that his father is in jail from working with MLK to fight for the right to vote – and there too, was great, seeing how while his mother legally has the right to vote, when she goes to register, “Every week they told her the registrar’s office was closed.”. His grandmother, in full wise-old-black-woman trope, teaches him about forgiving, and jesus says blah blah and st. valentine, and basically he has to make a valentine for his bully that says ‘let’s be friends’ Are you fucking kidding me?! his bully rips it up but somehow this earns him white friends who like what a Good Black Boy he is, and he holds his hand out to his bully and this is when I just kind of VOMITTED ALL OVER THE PLACE. problematic, shitty toxic message about how victims owe forgiveness to those who abuse them. This is the bullshit that makes me nervous when a white woman writes books about the experience of POC. whitewashing, tone policing, respectability politics. never addresses the fact that white folks shouldn’t feel entitled to forgiveness for being asshats, and this doesn’t show the impact of making a black kid seethe on the inside after a lifetime of letting those asshats roll over them.
hot house flowers – blatant racism, written by racist judge in NY who actively imprisons Black folks. white separatist, white supremacy, anti-immigration. Example of how the prison pipeline works, with folks like this in power.
- the coconut monk – poorly drawn middle-school level illustrations.. not ENGAGING at all. civil disobedience, but in a really boring, bland way. he says he wants people to live in peace. he is sent to prison. he’s peaceful in prison. somehow this magically solves everything. Nah.