19 Books Featuring Incarcerated Family Members for Young Readers of All Ages

Stories of children with parents behind bars are as diverse as the millions of real-life kids familiar with the experience. These 19 fiction and nonfiction titles may offer an empathetic, metaphoric hand for young readers to hold.

Stories of children with parents behind bars are as diverse as the millions of real-life kids familiar with the experience. The parent may be guilty or innocent, be in touch or disconnected, perhaps remorseful—or enraged. There are those who will come home—and those who won’t. But a common thread in these titles is the tangle of emotions and questions for children. Why is this happening? Will my mom still be there for me? Is this my fault? Will I end up like my dad? Should I tell anyone? Another common thread in these titles is the compassionate support structure provided by other family members and friends on the outside. For readers who may not have this scaffolding in their lives, these books may offer an empathetic, metaphoric hand to hold.


Picture Books

DE ANDA, Diane. Mango Moon: When Deportation Divides a Family. illus. by Sue Cornelison. Albert Whitman. 2019. ISBN 9780807549575.
K-Gr 4–Maricela’s dad used to coach her soccer team, push her and her brother Manuel on the swing set he built, and enjoy the moon with her. But now he’s incarcerated and awaiting deportation. Maricela, Manuel, and their now financially hard-pressed mother move in with family. Although the Latinx family exchanges letters with him, no one is certain when her dad will be released and where he’ll go next. Maricela learns that they can love each other from anywhere, but the book is realistic about the continuing tragedy of uncertainty inherent in her situation.

DE LA PEÑA, Matt. Milo Imagines the World. illus. by Christian Robinson. Putnam. 2021. ISBN 9780399549083.
K-Gr 3–On a subway ride with his older sister, Milo draws the imagined lives of people he sees on the train. Upon arriving at a jail to visit his mother, the Black boy is surprised to see a smartly dressed white boy from the train, whom Milo had previously imagined to be on his way to a castle, join him and his sister in line for visiting hours. This leads Milo to an empathetic reimagining of his drawings of other train passengers as well.

GREENWOOD, Sara. My Brother Is Away. illus. by Luisa Uribe. Random House Studio. 2022. ISBN 9780593127162.
K-Gr 3–The narrator, a young white girl, describes an older brother who used to read to her and lift her onto his shoulders, and who taught her how to fly a kite. When he goes to prison, she misses him and feels lonely, confused, and mad. How could her good brother have done such a bad thing? A family visit to see him at the prison helps her feel better about their unbroken connection and reminds her that other people are in the same situation.

KABA, Mariame. See You Soon. illus. by Bianca Diaz. Haymarket. 2022. ISBN 9781642597639.
K-Gr 2–Queenie, her mother, and grandmother are on their way to the county jail to drop off Queenie’s mother, who will be incarcerated for drug use. Genuine sentiment shines through somewhat belabored rhymes as Queenie, a brown-skinned girl, describes the things she likes to do with Mama, her fears and sorrows about the upcoming two years of being apart, and her first trip to visit her mother. Grandma Louise is a source of comfort, reminding Queenie that her mother is sick, not bad. Brightly colored illustrations help emphasize the vibrant, ongoing relationship between Queenie and her mother.

YAMASAKI, Katie. Dad Bakes. illus. by author. Norton. 2021. ISBN 9781324015413.
K-Gr 4–A daughter narrates her father’s day: he rises before the sun to go to his job at a bakery, then returns home to rest, play, and bake with her. Smiles and affection abound. Visual clues and an author’s note indicate that the father has recently been released from prison and now lives with and cares for his daughter, though the simple, perfect-for-new-readers text of the story doesn’t mention it. The family appears to be Asian.


Middle Grade

BAPTIST, Kelly J. The Swag Is in the Socks. Crown. 2021. ISBN 9780593380864.
Gr 3-7–Seventh grader Xavier Moon—who lives with his sister and great-aunt while his parents are in prison—is itching to make it into his school’s elite Scepter League. His great-uncle Frankie Bell, a touring musician, starts sending him cryptic notes and wild socks from the road. When Xavier finds his bid to join the Scepter League initially rejected, and finds himself stuck in a sewing class, the Black boy realizes his membership depends on embracing his natural swag, no matter how unexpected it seems.

GILES, Chrystal D. Not an Easy Win. Random. 2023. ISBN 9780593175217.
Gr 3-7–It’s not Lawrence’s fault he’s been expelled from school—kids have picked on him since he started as one of the only Black students in a predominantly white school. With his pop in jail and his mom working long hours, Lawrence finds refuge in his pop’s old-school playlists and the local community center’s chess program. By learning to “look at the whole board,” he not only builds an impressive chess game but also grows in empathy and friendship.

MALDONADO, Torrey. Hands. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2023. ISBN 9780593323793.
Gr 5 Up–Trev’s abusive stepdad is coming home from jail next week, and Trev wants to be ready. He seeks the input of trusted family-like adults as he wrestles with the most appropriate use of his hands. Should he learn to fight? Should he hone his impressive drawing talent and let his mom and uncles, in their strength and wisdom, handle his stepdad? Nuanced themes of potential and protection hem in this tightly woven tale of a boy leaning on the love of his community to help him navigate his way out of a cycle of violence. Trev is cued as Black.

MARKS, Janae. From the Desk of Zoe Washington. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. 2020. ISBN 9780062875853.
Gr 4 Up–On her 12th birthday, Zoe, who is Black, receives a letter from her birth father, Marcus. He’s been in prison for murder her whole life, but she’s never been in touch with him until now. She secretly starts corresponding with him, sure that if her mom finds out, she’ll put an end to it. When Zoe’s dad tells her he’s innocent, she’s determined to get him out. Can Zoe, along with her grandma and best friend, Trevor, help Marcus without her mom and stepdad finding out?

MASS, Wendy. Lo & Behold. illus. by Gabi Mendez. Random House Graphic. 2023. ISBN 9780593179635.
Gr 4-7–When a work project calls Addie’s dad across the country for the summer, she’s not excited to leave home. Making friends is hard when you have a big secret. But friendly neighbor Mateo, who is Latinx, persists, and eventually he and space-obsessed Addie, who is cued white, are drawn into the world of virtual reality her dad’s college students are creating. Will learning to build a virtual world help Addie map out her real one, including finding a way to understand her mother’s prescription pill addiction and incarceration? A nuanced graphic novel.

THOMSON, Melissa. Tito the Bonecrusher. illus. by author. Farrar. 2019. ISBN 9780374303532.
Gr 3-6–If Oliver’s dad has to go to prison, then Oliver’s going to help him get out. He forms an elaborate plan, helped along by his friends Brain and Popcorn, which starts with meeting their favorite wrestler/actor Tito the Bonecrusher and asking him how to spring someone from jail like he does in his movies. The caper eventually lands Oliver, an unreliable but extremely funny narrator, at the prison for an enlightening visit with his dad. The story is a surprisingly astute, emotional journey in a (luchador) mask of levity. The characters’ race is not specified.

VENKATRAMAN, Padma. Born Behind Bars. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2021. ISBN 9780593112472.
Gr 5 Up–Just after Kabir’s ninth birthday, he finds out he is to be released alone from the women’s prison in India where he has always lived with his mother. He’s determined to find his father’s family and get his innocent mother out of jail, but Kabir has never navigated life outside bars, which can be especially dangerous for him because his religious and social status make him an outcast in India. A fellow untouchable helps Kabir start learning what he needs to know to carve out space for himself and stand up for freedom in a fast-moving world. His story is weighty and moving—bring tissues.



JOHNSON, Kim. This Is My America. Random. 2020. ISBN 9780593118764.
Gr 9 Up–For seven years, intrepid Black teen activist Tracy Beaumont has penned weekly letters to an organization called Innocence X to request help for her dad, an innocent man on death row who has less than a year to live. Meanwhile, her talented and promising older brother Jamal becomes a suspect in the murder of his white girlfriend and disappears, hunted by police and local white supremacists. Part justice drama, part thriller, Tracy’s story is a searing examination of the insidious, ongoing effects of historic and systemic racism on individuals and families in a small town.

KEMP, Laekan Zea. An Appetite for Miracles. Little, Brown. 2023. ISBN 9780316461733.
Gr 9 Up–When Danna Mendoza Villareal meets Raúl Santos, the connection is immediate. Both are facing stressful family situations: Danna is trying to cook her fading grandfather’s favorite foods to salvage his memories, all while fending off her mother’s body-shaming; Raúl’s mother is freshly out of prison, and he’s struggling with their newly troubled relationship. As the Latinx teens increasingly lean on each other for hope and empathy, they also continue to find sturdy support in other family members. Along with rich sensory descriptions of food and music, this verse novel includes an honest exploration of the role faith can play during personal trauma.

THOMAS, Angie. Concrete Rose. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2021. ISBN 9780062846716.
Gr 9 Up–Seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter, who is Black, doesn’t want to follow his dad to prison, but slinging drugs for the King Lords is easily the best money he can make to help out his mom. Dre, his beloved cousin and mentor, is definitive: stay away from selling. Under intense pressure, Mav’s choices are grim: commit to long-term gang life for financial security, or row against the current to pursue education and employment while caring for a baby. His dad’s legacy as a King Lord is a strong influence on how Mav thinks about his future, as are the steady lights of his mother, girlfriend, and neighbors.



BIRTHA, Becky. Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated. illus. by Maja Kastelic. Albert Whitman. 2017. ISBN 9780807512753.
PreS-Gr 3–In the first half of this book, each page features a different child who has a parent or parents incarcerated, sharing their feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, and embarrassment. Next, readers see the same kids employing simple coping strategies to handle their previously described struggles. The narration is direct and compassionate, describing important measures—talking to a trusted adult, being honest about feelings, and keeping in touch with a jailed parent—without sidestepping the real challenges kids face or offering pat answers. Birtha’s straightforward tone and inclusion of diverse kids and situations make this a truly standout resource for young children of incarcerated adults.

CASTLE, Jiordan. Disappearing Act: A True Story. Farrar. 2023. ISBN 9780374389772.
Gr 8 Up–The summer before Castle starts high school, her father’s home office is raided by the FBI, resulting in charges that send her dad to prison for four years. As Castle attempts to find her path through the usual freshman woes of friendship changes, new romance, and schoolwork, she’s also trying to manage her conflicting feelings about her volatile father’s absence and whiplash changes in family relationships and finances. This memoir-in-verse especially shines in its heartrending depiction of how a parent’s mental health struggles affect the whole family, even from afar.

KROSOCZKA, Jarrett J. Hey, Kiddo. illus. by author. Scholastic/Graphix. 2018. ISBN 9780545902472.
Gr 8 Up–When Krosoczka is young, his mother relinquishes custody of him to her parents. Although he exchanges letters with her, he doesn’t learn until middle school that she’s in jail for crimes related to a heroin addiction. He finds solace and a dream for the future in art, specifically cartooning, and forms tight relationships with his loving-but-erratic grandparents and his mom’s siblings. Krosoczka grows up caught between wanting to know his mother and guarding against her volatility. With poignance, this graphic memoir tracks his childhood and adolescence grappling with questions of family and identity.

PATTON, Jay Jay with Kiara Valdez. Dear Dad: Growing Up with a Parent in Prison—and How We Stayed Connected. illus. by Markia Jenai. Scholastic/Graphix. Sept. 2024. ISBN 9781546128373.
Gr 5-8–In this slim, focused, graphic memoir, Patton keeps in touch with her incarcerated dad through letters and phone calls. When her father—from whom Patton inherited her love of math and number puzzles—comes home, the family moves to Florida, where he works as a computer programmer and starts teaching his daughter how to code. They team up to develop an app that helps kids stay in touch with incarcerated parents. Though it doesn’t dig deep into character, the story of a father and daughter using their expertise and lived experience to help others is inspiring.

Rachel Owens is a children’s library assistant at the O’Neal Library in Birmingham, AL.

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