The best books for young people featuring families with incarcerated members

Who am I?

Over 5 million children in the United States have had at least one parent in a correctional facility at one time or another. These children, and their parents, are our neighbors, our family, our friends. We might see them at a soccer match, or sit beside them at public libraries, or gather together with them regularly in prayer. They need to see themselves portrayed in a meaningful manner in the books they read. This shortlist includes two picture books, a middle-grade novel, and two young adult titles. I'm passionate about books on this topic because equity and inclusiveness and vital to me; and because I think excellent books such as these may enable us to start nuanced discussions and enhance our compassion. 

I wrote...

Born Behind Bars

By Padma Venkatraman,

Book cover of Born Behind Bars

What is my book about?

Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born, because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s never met his dad, so the only family he’s got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost “uncle” who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can–run away as fast as his legs will take him.

How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way?

The books I picked & why

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Punching the Air

By Ibi Zoboi, Yusef Salaam,

Book cover of Punching the Air

Why this book?

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between writing that is spare and writing that is sparse, read this phenomenal verse novel for young adults. Punching The Air is a stunning example of eloquence and a testament to the power of poetry, created by award author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist, motivational speaker and member of the exonerated five, Yusef Salaam. As lyrical as it is profound, this is the story of one young man’s incredible strength and resilience; a young man able to preserve his humanity and compassion as he battles against oppression and systemic racism.

Hey, Kiddo

By Jarrett J. Krosoczka,

Book cover of Hey, Kiddo

Why this book?

Hey, Kiddo is a touching true-life story of a brilliant author-illustrator’s childhood; it is about growing up with a parent who was incarcerated; above all, it is about the transcendent strength of love between a parent and child (in this case a mother who is struggling with addiction and her son). Krosoczka combines art and carefully chosen words to bring us a graphic non-fiction book that is as spellbinding as any novel, and as unforgettable as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Cece Bell’s El Deafo, or Jerry Craft’s New Kid. If you ever doubted whether a “comic” could have true literary merit, this graphic memoir is sure to dispel your doubts forever.    

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

By Leslie Connor,

Book cover of All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

Why this book?

I’ve read – and loved – many of Connor’s others books, but I hadn’t read this one until last year, when, after sharing the plot of Born Behind Bars with a librarian, she mentioned that it sounded a little like All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. At once, I looked it up – and when I read the synopsis, I was shocked. It seemed to begin almost exactly the way that my own novel began – with a boy whose mother is incarcerated, and who is suddenly told he’s too old to continue living with her. I wrote a frantic email to my agent, who was reassuringly calm. When I finally read the book, I felt enormous relief. While Connor’s book and mine share this single plot point, and they are both, ultimately, about the triumph of love and family and friendship, the plots diverge tremendously, the settings are oceans apart (Connor’s novel is set in the United States, whereas mine is set in India), and they are peopled with very different characters.

Most importantly, as I continued to read, I stopped comparing our two books, because I was carried away by Connor’s protagonist, Perry. If you set out with Perry on a quest to discover secrets his mother has been hiding about why she’s imprisoned, you’ll surely become as engrossed in the twists and turns of Perry’s life struggles, as I was. With her characteristic grace, Connor has brought alive for middle-grade readers a tale that honestly but gently addresses the ways in which incarceration affects families.

Visiting Day

By Jacqueline Woodson, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Visiting Day

Why this book?

Lyrical and moving, this picture book is one of Woodson’s many gems. We witness a child’s excitement and attention as she carefully prepares for the one day a month when she meets her loving father who is incarcerated. We share her anticipation, see her grandmother’s affection, and also glimpse the depth of her father’s longing to see his family. The book’s climax will bittersweet – we sense the joy of reunion but it is tinged with the knowledge of imminent separation. An insightful and deeply touching portrayal of how familial love endures, despite the harsh reality of incarceration.

Milo Imagines the World

By Matt de la Peña, Christian Robinson (illustrator),

Book cover of Milo Imagines the World

Why this book?

This book, like the author’s award-winning Last Stop On Market Street, features a child taking a trip on public transportation to an unknown destination. Milo, the protagonist, imagines where his fellow passengers are headed in language that is believably childlike but also fresh and vivid. He is heading to prison, to meet his mother – and the surprise ending to this book begs the question of who has a right to judge anyone else, and sends a gentle but powerful message against making conclusions about people based on appearance.

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