By: Aislinn Gallivan, CCCIP Member
Many picture books exist to help caregivers, social workers, or educators discuss difficult emotions and experiences with young children when their parent goes to jail. The following list provides the names of six books that offer a good starting point for discussion. Each book review identifies the strengths and shortcomings of each story and offers suggestions for further discussion.
Kofi’s Mom | 24 pages
Kofi’s Mom tells the story of a young Black boy whose mother is in prison. It explores his feelings of loss and confusion and highlights how confiding in a trustworthy friend helps Kofi cope. The story aims to show children that there are ways to talk about their feelings with others and that others are capable of responding with compassion and empathy.
Although the story uniquely portrays a Black child who experiences maternal incarceration, the story does not address how this experience may differ from a white child’s experience and/or the experience of paternal incarceration. It also does not address whose care Kofi is under while his mom is imprisoned. The story should be supplemented with a meaningful discussion of how factors such as race and class can impact access to resources, and how many children may enter foster care or live with extended relatives while their parent is incarcerated.
Doogie’s Dad | 26 pages
Doogie’s Dad tells the story of a young boy and his sister whose father is sent to prison. Told from Doogie’s perspective, this story explores Doogie’s feelings of loss, fear, and frustration related to his dad’s absence and as information is withheld from him regarding his dad’s whereabouts.
Like Kofi’s Mom, this story leaves many aspects of the story ambiguous, including the family’s class. This story can be enhanced with discussion that relates to the specific factors that shape how families experience criminalization and imprisonment, such as poverty and racialization. It can also be enhanced by expanding in discussion with child readers on the fears that they may have related to visiting an imprisoned parent.
Sammy’s Visit | 48 pages
Sammy’s visit offers a glimpse into a day in the life of a young girl with an incarcerated mother. The story details the challenges that Sammy faces, including feeling lonely and not wanting to visit her mother in prison. Despite Sammy’s initial resistance to visiting her mother, the story shows how visits can benefit the child and the parent. The story also highlights the experience of living with a grandparent during the incarcerated parent’s absence.
This book was used for educational research and appears in the author’s master’s thesis and other research publications. It is a good resource for highlighting instances when children may not want to visit their incarcerated parent and caregivers or social workers may find this plot line a useful starting point for discussion with anxious, fearful, or resistant children.
When Dad Was Away | 32 pages
When Dad Was Away shares the story of a young girl, Milly, who feels angry and confused about her father’s incarceration. She experiences guilt and wonders if it is somehow her fault that her father has gone away. She eventually visits her father in prison and, in the end, experiences joy and relief as she is reunited with her father upon his release.
This story shows children that visits can be a positive experience and creates space for dialogue on these issues. However, while this story addresses the experience of visitation, release and re-entry, it does not address the common barriers that children face when they visit their parent on the inside, nor does it address the complex challenges that families often face upon their loved one’s release and re-entry into the community. These points should be elaborated upon by caregivers, social workers, or educators who use this book to foster discussion with children.
The Night Dad Went to Jail: What to Expect When Someone You Love Goes to Jail | 24 pages
This story centres the experience of a young rabbit named Sketch whose parent is arrested in front of them. Using a combination of text and child-friendly drawings, the story explores Sketch’s feelings of anger, loss, shame, and confusion related to his dad’s arrest and as he struggles to cope with teasing by classmates. The book provides footnotes that explain the legal process in simple terms for children to understand. It also includes a helpful glossary of terms related to the criminal justice system and directs readers to further resources that may help them cope.
While some explanations of the legal process remain overly simplified and Sketch’s experience is somewhat idealized given the amount of support he receives compared to most children in Canada and the US who experience parental incarceration, the story still offers caregivers, educators, or social workers a good starting point for discussion with child readers. It sends a hopeful message about forgiveness and reminds readers how important it is for children to receive a wide range of support in these circumstances.
My Daddy’s in Jail | 42 pages
My Daddy’s in Jail is a story about two young bears who have a father in prison. The story is narrated by a cockroach, who finds himself in jail alongside the children’s father. Unlike most other children’s books on this topic, this story is written by a former prisoner and aims to show children what their parent’s day-to-day reality on the inside is like. The realities of prison life in Canada and the US are adequately depicted as the prison in the story is characterized by unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.
While the book does well to depict the realities of prison life, it presents an overly hopeful message about release and re-entry. It presents a fairytale-like ending and risks failing to manage children’s expectations about the barriers their family may face upon their loved one’s release and re-entry. Caregivers, social workers, or educators who read this book with children should be mindful about furthering this discussion to avoid presenting children with a false sense of hope if their parent struggles to secure employment, housing, or if they live with mental illness or addiction.