Incarcerated Parents, Essential Workers: Katie Yamasaki's Books Begin with People

In an era when we’ve all learned the separation between essential workers and everyone else, Katie Yamasaki's latest takes on a topic that most people would rather not discuss.

From the moment readers open Dad Bakes, by Katie Yamasaki, they are drawn in by the warm relationship between parent and child. The title is cozy. So is the book. And it is about baking together. But there’s so much more going on—this father has served time, he’s clocking in some pretty early baking shifts with skills he may or may not have learned in prison, and he seems to relish every spare minute he can spend with his daughter. The very few words and realistic commuting scenes befit the era when we’ve all learned the separation between essential workers and everyone else. With the text, no matter how spare, there is also the subtext.

A creator who works very much from the heart, here Yamasaki brings us into her thinking.

The children of incarcerated parents are part of a tragic and increasing demographic. What kind of resources did you come across, if any, when you were preparing for Dad Bakes?A small brown girl is smiling at her father, who is working with dough

In my mural work, I’ve been collaborating with communities impacted by incarceration for a little over 10 years. Dad Bakes really came from the people I have met along the way. I’ve worked with many children while their parents were incarcerated, and also during times of re-entry, while they were reconnecting and establishing a new phase of life together. I have also been able to partner with parents both inside of correctional facilities and outside, who are in diverse therapeutic and re-entry programs.

There are many organizations—local and national, who have been incredible resources for me in forming this story: Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, On the Rise Bakery in Detroit, Osborne Association in Brooklyn, Hour Children, Women and Justice Project, STEPS to End Family Violence, Re-Entry Rocks, and Center for NU Leadership here in New York. That said, it was ultimately my direct experience of knowing and partnering with parents and children impacted by incarceration that informed the story.

Then, which came first, the topic or the story?

I would say that the people came first. Any time I get to know people who are having a poignant life experience that is underrepresented or misrepresented in media, I think about making a book or mural to share these stories. On any given day in the United States, there are at least five million children who have a parent in a correctional facility—some estimates are much higher. But it isn’t a story that you see in many books or other forms of media. When a parent is incarcerated, there is a lot of stigma for both the parents and the children, and I wanted to make a story with expansive, whole characters to help destigmatize these circumstances so we can help children have openhearted conversations about different journeys families encounter.

This early morning work setting is also rarely shown to children in their books. We almost never see overnight shifts, factories, the rough early starts to bakeries and, well, cleaning details, etc. How important was this setting to you?

I love this question. One of the reasons I wanted to make this book was because as immense as our prison population is, as immense as the population of children who have a parent who is incarcerated, because of the nature of prison, people impacted by incarceration are largely ignored, forgotten about, and unseen—much like the people who work these overnight shifts doing labor that largely is invisible to society, but absolutely necessary. I love encouraging children to think about people they may not see on a regular basis, who are living lives that may be different from their own but are still connected. Helping to grow the feeling and idea that we all belong to each other. I think that a great hope for our future is for children to grow feeling connected to and responsible for one another, and I believe that books are one way we can introduce and nurture those connections.

Why did you leave the message of incarceration in the back matter, or off script, for adults or older readers to introduce to listeners or not?

Yamasaki included a list of resources in the back of the book.

Homeboy Industries, Los Angeles, CA

Hour Children, Long Island City, NY

On the Rise Bakery, Detroit, MI

The Osborne Association, Brooklyn, NY

STEPS to End Family Violence, New York, NY

Women and Justice Project, Jackson Heights, NY

When someone is incarcerated, they assume a single identity. Criminal. Felon. Inmate. And there is a kind of binary that children are often taught: if you are bad, you go away. If you are good, you stay here. There is almost a reflexive judgment that is passed upon people who have been incarcerated and I wanted to give the reader the opportunity to get to know the dad more fully, as a whole human—a baker, gardener, cat-lover, reader, father, etc., first. Then, when the reader deepens their understanding of the father in the author’s note, there is a broader context of his humanity and perhaps a better understanding of how he has built this life for himself and his daughter.

Your work often addresses some social issue. How do you think about introducing these things to a young audience? I suppose this is a question about bringing more than a story to the page, but providing something for children to think about.

I try to make work that reflects the world back to the reader while giving them space to see themselves and their peers more clearly. Social issues are all around us and they are the lived experience of our children, so for those who are experiencing these often challenging moments, I want to create a space where they can see themselves on the page. And for their friends and classmates, I want to provide a window into the lives of their peers to broaden their perspective and to humanize these big words (incarceration, gentrification, internment, etc.) that can seem foreign and scary, but are really just things that people are living with and carrying, every day. I hope that in seeing more complex social situations brought to life through relatable characters, kids and adults alike will be more inclined and comfortable talking about the hard stuff and destigmatizing what is, for many children, everyday life.

Are the main characters visual stand-ins for anyone in your life? They have so much personality!

Thank you! The father and daughter definitely remind me a little of my husband and daughter, but they are also their own beings! I think that they reflect the tenderness and connection that I’ve witnessed among people I know who have parented during times of great challenge (including incarceration and re-entry) and as a result have a unique, poignant bond. I also wanted to show them as resourceful, creative, and basking in the small, shared moments of daily life that any parent and any child can relate to, no matter their circumstances.

Author photo @ Michael Chung

Kimberly Olson Fakih
Kimberly Olson Fakih

Kimberly Olson Fakih (kfakih@mediasourceinc.com, she/her) is Senior Editor, Picture Books, at SLJ. She previously was the children's book review editor at Kirkus Reviews, senior editor of all children's media at FamilyWonder.com, and executive editor of book reviews at iVillage.

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