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?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Punching the Air

Padma Venkatraman Why did I love 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.

By Ibi Zoboi, Yusef Salaam,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Punching the Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

The story that I thought

was my life

didn't start on the day

I was born

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he's seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. "Boys just…


Book cover of Hey, Kiddo

Padma Venkatraman Why did I love 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.    

By Jarrett J. Krosoczka,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hey, Kiddo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

An important graphic novel memoir that was a US National
Book Award Finalist.
In kindergarten, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asks him to draw
his family, with a mommy and a daddy.

But Jarrett's family is much more complicated
than that.

His mom is an addict, in and out of rehab, and
in and out of Jarrett's life.

His father is a mystery - Jarrett doesn't know
where to find him, or even what his name is.

Jarrett lives with his grandparents - two very
loud, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they
were through with raising children until Jarrett…


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

Padma Venkatraman Why did I love 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.

By Leslie Connor,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Junior Library Guild Selection * Kids' Indie Next List Pick From Leslie Connor, award-winning author of Waiting for Normal and Crunch, comes a soaring and heartfelt story about love, forgiveness, and how innocence makes us all rise up. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook is a powerful story, perfect for fans of Wonder and When You Reach Me. Eleven-year-old Perry was born and raised by his mom at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. His mom is a resident on Cell Block C, and so far Warden Daugherty has made it possible for them…


Book cover of Visiting Day

Padma Venkatraman Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Visiting Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

In this moving picture book from multi-award winning author Jacqueline Woodson, a young girl and her grandmother prepare for a very special day--the one day a month they get to visit the girl's father in prison. "Only on visiting day is there chicken frying in the kitchen at 6 a.m, and Grandma in her Sunday dress, humming soft and low." As the little girl and her grandmother get ready, her father, who adores her, is getting ready, too, and readers get to join the community of families who make the trip together, as well as the triumphant reunion between father…


Book cover of Milo Imagines the World

Padma Venkatraman Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Milo Imagines the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

Milo is on a long subway ride with his older sister. To pass the time, he studies the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives. There's the whiskered man with the crossword puzzle; Milo imagines him playing solitaire in a cluttered apartment full of pets. There's the wedding-dressed woman with a little dog peeking out of her handbag; Milo imagines her in a grand cathedral ceremony. And then there's the boy in the suit with the bright white sneakers; Milo imagines him arriving home to a castle with a drawbridge and a butler. But when the boy in…


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Christmas at Corbie Hall: A McLaren Mystery

By Jo A. Hiestand,

Book cover of Christmas at Corbie Hall: A McLaren Mystery

Jo A. Hiestand Author Of An Unwilling Suspect

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Mystery novelist World War 2 espionage enthusiast Reader Cat parent

Jo's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Former police detective Michael McLaren is looking forward to spending Christmas at his grandfather's ancient Hall with his grandfather, uncle, and his lady love, Melanie. But McLaren’s holiday plan gets snowed under when a dead man is discovered outside his grandfather’s house--in circumstances similar to an older murder. And it’s not long before McLaren is asked to look into the previous death.

Both men played in Scottish pipe bands and worked at the same bank. Are the two murders connected? Can McLaren wrap up the cases in time to unwrap Christmas gifts with Melanie? It’s a race against the calendar and weather if he wants the Day—and his future with her—to be merry and bright.

Christmas at Corbie Hall: A McLaren Mystery

By Jo A. Hiestand,

What is this book about?

Former police detective Michael McLaren is looking forward to spending Christmas at his grandfather's ancient Hall with his grandfather, uncle, and his lady love, Melanie. But McLaren’s holiday plan gets snowed under when a dead man is discovered outside his grandfather’s house--in circumstances similar to an older murder. And it’s not long before McLaren is asked to look into the previous death.

Both men played in Scottish pipe bands and worked at the same bank. Are the two murders connected? Can McLaren wrap up the cases in time to unwrap Christmas gifts with Melanie? It’s a race against the calendar…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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