It may seem like incarceration is a too heavy a topic for a children’s book. However, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation. That means millions of children have been touched by incarceration. All of those children deserve to see themselves in books. The books on this list touch on different aspects of incarceration. Some tackle unjust detention or incarcerated parents, others tackle the emotional difficulty of being separated from loved ones, and some reveal the inhumanity of detention.
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Because these books draw attention to the difficult situation so many children find themselves in, they encourage compassion for others. I hope you will read them to your own children, even if they have not been personally touched by incarceration or detention.
I recommend finding books at your local library. If you purchase books online you can support independent booksellers through Bookshop. You can find this list curated at Bookshop.
Picture Books about Incarceration
by Diane de Anda, illustrated by Sue Cornelison
Mango Moon documents the heartbreak that happens when 10-year-old Maricela’s father is detained for deportation to an unnamed but dangerous country. Maricela feels his loss in every aspect of her life and looks for ways to connect with him, especially by imagining they are both looking at the same “mango moon.” Ages 7 and up.
by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
Woodson depicts the importance of children maintaining a relationship with an incarcerated parent. With the companionship of her grandmother, a young girl gets ready to visit her father and takes the long bus ride to the prison. The relationship between daughter and father is positive and the girl is assured that her father will be home one day. The book ends on a hopeful note and I appreciated that there was no judgement of the father. Ages 4 and up.
Knock Knock My Dad’s Dream for Me
by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Brian Collier
The story begins with a boy telling us that every morning his father says “Knock, knock,” but that one morning he isn’t there. He goes on to describe the loss he feels everyday and the worry he feels that he might not see his father again. When a letter comes from the father, we get the sense he will be gone for a very long time. Because the text never confirms that the father is incarcerated, Beaty’s story could apply to other situations where a parent is absent. Ages 4 and up.
by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub
Saya, a girl of Haitian descent lives with her father after her mother is sent to Sunshine Correctional facility, a detention center for undocumented immigrants. Saya and her father write letters, hoping to draw public attention to their situation. Until the day when a judge allows Saya’s mother to await her papers at home, Saya finds comfort in the Haitian stories her mother records for her. Ages 5 and up.
Middle Grade Books
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
by Janae Marks
I adored this book about Zoe, a 12-year-old girl who, after starting a correspondence with her incarcerated father, Marcus, sets out to prove his innocence. Zoe’s mother always kept Zoe from having a relationship with her father, who was serving time for murder, but one day, Zoe discovers a letter addressed to her from him and decides to write back. Zoe and her friend, Trevor, start to investigate Marcus’ trial conviction, learning about systemic racism in the justice system. While the subject is certainly very serious, Janae Marks has written a marvelously accessible story with likable, nuanced characters. Ages 9 and up.
Santiago’s Road Home
by Alexandra Diaz
After 12-year-old Santiago runs from his abusive home, he meets the kind María Dolores and her daughter, Alegría. They are on their way to El Norte, where they have family, and Santiago joins them on the treacherous journey. Once over the border, they come close to death in the desert and are found by immigration officers who take them to detention centers. In the center, Santiago learns the awful truth of how immigrants are treated and despairs that he will never leave. It is the kindness of María Dolores’s family that saves him. A totally engrossing and important story. Ages 9 and up.
Land of the Cranes
by Aida Salazar
Salazar brings us another lovely verse novel (I recommended her wonderful The Moon Within on my list of books about puberty). Betita, a girl who find magic in words, lives with the uncertainty of her family’s immigration status. One day, her father’s workplace is raided by ICE and he is deported. Then, due to a tragic navigational mistake on the highway, Betita and her pregnant mother end up in detainment. There is no tidy ending for Betita and her family, a situation far too many families find themselves in. Ages 8 and up.
Bringing Me Back
by Beth Vrabel
Noah’s mom is in prison for six months and the whole school hates him. The previous school year his mom was arrested for driving under the influence, and the school’s football season was cancelled due to Noah’s actions that resulted in another player’s injury. Noah’s now living with his mother’s boyfriend who provides a surprising degree of stability. Noah, however, refuses to visit his mom, instead focusing on finding and rescuing a bear that has a bucket stuck on its head. Middle grade readers, regardless of their personal situation will easily relate to Noah’s emotional ups and downs. Ages 9 and up.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
by Leslie Connor
Don’t miss this wonderful book! For twelve years, Perry has lived at the minimum security Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility, where his mother is imprisoned. His official foster parent is the warden, who allows Perry to stay with his mom. Perry has made important relationships with several of the women, giving the reader a nuanced view of the lives of people who make mistakes. Perry’s mother is due to be paroled but a DA derails the process and then removes Perry from his foster parent. Perry is devastated to be taken from his mother but works hard to get back to his mother. Ages 8 and up.
Ruby on the Outside
by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Ruby’s mother is in prison and Ruby doesn’t want anyone to find out. She tries to keep her “outside” and “inside” worlds separate. She finally decides to connect to someone on the “outside” and befriends a new girl at school, who is experiencing family difficulties and a loss of her own. The tragedies of the girls collide and their friendship is tested. A page-turning, compassionate story. Ages 9 and up.
Lizzie Flying Solo
by Nanci Turner Steveson
Lizzie’s dad is arrested for embezzlement and Lizzie and her mom end up in a homeless shelter. Lizzie withdraws into herself but when she meets an unbroken pony, she is determined to help it and starts working at the barn in exchange for riding lessons. Gradually, as Lizzie learns the stories of the others in the shelter and engages with her peers, she finds her own strength. Not your typical “a girl and her horse” story. Ages 8 and up.
Tito the Bonecrusher
by Melissa Thomson
When Oliver’s dad ends up in a Florida jail, Oliver decides to seek assistance from his favorite luchador, Tito the Bonecrusher. Oliver’s best friend helps him with a plan to meet Tito at a charity gala to enlist him to help them break Oliver’s dad out of prison. Thomson successfully integrates humor and absurdity into a story of a family dealing with an emotional crisis, making this book a joy to read. Ages 8 and up.
by Jacqueline Woodson
Six diverse kids are put together in a room at school as a place where they can talk about the issues they are facing in their lives. Their burdens are as diverse as their backgrounds; incarceration, racial profiling, possible deportation are just a few of the subjects the middle schoolers need and want to talk about with each other. Woodson’s prose is gorgeous, almost poetic and the reader will come to care for all of the teens as they tell their stories. Ages 10 and up.