Books for Children and Teens That Touch on Incarceration

About 7% of U.S. children know what it’s like to have an incarcerated parent. Books about children with a parent in prison provide validation to these readers, so they know they’re not alone, nor are they the only kids who’ve gone through similar situations. Also, books about parent incarceration build empathy in children who don’t know what it’s like to have a parent in jail.

no no 9780399549083 Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Riding the subway with his older sister, young artist Milo observes the other people, imagining their lives in his notebook. So, he’s surprised when the boy in the suit (who he thought might live in a castle) gets off at the same subway stop, and they both line up for the prison’s visiting hours. Milo realizes he shouldn’t have judged the boy based on his appearance.
(Ages 4 – 8)

9780147516084 Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James E. Ransome

An excited little girl and her food-prepping Grandma prepare for a bus ride to visit the girl’s daddy in prison. When they arrive at the prison, it’s big smiles, sharing stories, and peppermints. But after they leave, the girl feels sad. Grandma reminds her that her daddy will live at home again one day.
(Ages 5 – 7)

9789888341542 Hazelnut Days by Emmanuel Bourdier, illustrated by Zau

During their weekly prison visit, the boy feels angry that his dad smells like peppermint instead of hazelnut. He remembers how sometimes his dad is funny and strong, but other times, he has a short temper and makes his mom’s eyes sad. This honest slice-of-life story explores the complicated relationship between a son and his incarcerated father.
(Ages 5 – 7)

9780525428091 Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

Saya desperately misses her Haitian Mama, who is in prison because she doesn’t have legal papers. To help with the sadness, Mama records cassette tapes with calming songs and bedtime stories for Saya. After a newspaper reporter reads Saya’s emotional letter to her Mama, the subsequent article about their family’s separation brings about a heartfelt ending.
(Ages 5 – 8)

9780375832024 The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Living at a prison with her warden dad isn’t so bad, but 12-year-old Cammie desperately wants a mom. When her plans to make one of the female prisoners into her new mom fail, her anger becomes destructive. Cammie’s challenging coming-of-age journey is turbulent, making readers appreciate the satisfying conclusion all the more.
(Ages 8 – 12)

9781536222975 A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

In a Thai-inspired fantasy world loosely based on Les Misérables, the Governor controls the light, both in the prison where Pong lived for most of his life and outside it, where the newly escaped boy now lives. Meanwhile, Nok, the prison warden’s daughter, hunts for Pong in an attempt to restore her family name. With themes of poverty, growing up, friendship, and redemption, this is a memorable story about shining a light on the darkness.
(Ages 8 – 12)

9780593112472 Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

Born and raised in jail with his imprisoned mom, Kabir ages out with no survival skills. A dangerous slaver pretends to be his uncle but plans to sell him before Kabir escapes and lives on the streets. Fortunately, a scrappy girl named Rani helps Kabir survive. The friends risk everything to travel across India to find Kabir’s grandparents, where they get a heart-warming happy ending.
(Ages 10 – 14)

9780525515142 Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Haley and five other kids with learning differences meet every Friday after school. While the other kids bond by sharing their life stories, Haley doesn’t tell them that her dad is in jail for killing her mom. When she finally works up the courage to tell her friends the truth, the other students surprise her with their unconditional, loving support.
(Ages 10 and up)

9781984815705 Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Della and her older sister Suki are safe from their imprisoned drug-addicted mom and her sexually abusive boyfriend. Their new foster situation allows Della to face her trauma and anxiety with therapeutic support, just as Suki’s overwhelming, unresolved pain leads to a suicide attempt. Their gripping story gives readers hope as the sisters find their voices and healing.
(Ages 10 and up)

9780147512505 An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder

Francisco’s father gets unjustly thrown in a Bolivian prison, forcing Francisco and his little sister to move into the men’s prison, too. Although Francisco doesn’t want to give up his dreams, the prison puts them in constant danger. He realizes that if he can’t keep his little sister safe, they might need to leave their father and move to their grandparent’s rural home.
(Young Adult)

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Books for Children and Teens That Touch on Incarceration