Children’s books that include kids with a parent in jail are hugely important to support kids in similar situations and to build empathy in other children.
Millions of children have a parent or jail or prison.
Books that feature kids who also have a parent in jail are important mirrors and windows for readers –both in seeing oneself in a story as well as empathy building for others.
When I first started teaching 27 years ago, I taught many students with parents in jail…and I wished that I’d had these books on my classroom shelves.
It’s so important to include these books in all classrooms and libraries. I hope this list of books helps you support the children in your lives.
Children’s Books About Kids with a Parent in Jail
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier (picture book)
The love between son and father is a beautiful thing in this story. Every morning, his father knock-knocks on the boy’s door and the boy pretends to be asleep. But one day, the father isn’t there. And he doesn’t come back. The boy misses his dad in all the moments of the day that they did together like making scrambled eggs and helping with homework. So he writes his dad a letter. The letter his dad writes him back from jail is filled with words of wisdom and love. “No longer will I be there to knock on your door, so you must learn to knock for yourself. Knock knock down the doors that I could not.” Heart-wrenching, beautiful, and hope-filled.
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robi (picture book)
Milo travels on the subway with his sister, his anxiety making him feel like a shook-up soda, even though it’s a weekly ride. He observes the people around him and in his notebook, draws and writes stories about them. They arrive at their stop and he’s surprised to see a boy that he noticed before, a boy wearing a suit in line at the jail, too. Milo realizes you can’t tell people’s stories just by their appearance. Then, he and his sister get to hug their mom and visit with her.
Hazelnut Days by Emmanuel Bourdier, illustrated by ZAU (picture book)
The boy’s relationship with his dad who is in prison is complicated. His dad has a short temper but he’s also funny and strong. At school, he doesn’t know what to tell other kids about what his dad does. He thinks, “Sometimes I hate Dad when I see Mom’s sad eyes.” This is a worthy addition to school libraries because it addresses important subjects that aren’t often discussed.
The Night Dad Went to Jail by Melissa Higgins, illustrated by Wednesday Kirwan (picture book)
A little rabbit explains what happened when the police came to arrest his dad and how he uses drawing to express his feelings about before, during, and after including having a social worker, visiting his dad, and group therapy. Excellent.
Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family when a Loved One is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Maja Kastelic (picture book)
This supportive picture book shows different situations of children whose moms or dads are behind bars and gives them permission to have as many different feelings all at the same time as they feel…and also, that they aren’t the only kids experiencing this.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (ages 9 – 12)
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a letter from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She decides to write him back, even daring to ask him about the murder he’s in jail for — did he really do it? Marcus writes to Zoe that he’s innocent and he can prove it which sets Zoe on a quest to find out the truth for herself, even if her mom and dad forbid it. She enlists the help of her Grandma and her best friend, Trevor. You won’t be able to put down this winsome story with a heroine you can’t help but adore; a story that illuminates social justice with themes of family, friendship, and love.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (ages 9 – 12)
Harbor Me tackles some very big issues including race, immigration, bullying, learning differences, friendship, and forgiveness. The story is about six diverse children with learning differences. They bond during a special kids-only time on Friday afternoons where they share their stories, many of which Haley records on a tape recorder. Even as she learns about the other kids who are, Haley is reluctant to share that her own dad is in jail for the car accident killing her mother. When she does eventually share, it’s beautiful to see the other kids support her. This well-written story deserves to be discussed as it has a wealth of ideas to ponder.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor (ages 9 – 12)
This book hooked me from the first page, taking me on a coming-of-age story that was both heartbreaking and filled with hope. Perry is well-loved by his mother and her friends– in prison. That’s where Perry has lived since he was born eleven years ago. But in an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events, his best friend’s stepfather, the new District Attorney, forces Perry to leave the prison. Not only that, the DA tries to stall Perry’s mother’s parole hearing. Perry discovers the stories behind the inmates’ lives, hoping that they’ll be helpful in reuniting him with his mother. This story will stay with you long after you read the last page.
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman (ages 9 – 12)
Kabir is too old to continue living in jail with his mom who was unjustly imprisoned. He’s forced to leave the jail without his mom and quickly realizes that his so-called uncle is trying to sell him into slavery. Kabir runs away and meets a worldly-wise girl named Rani who helps him survive the streets. Together, the two journey to another city where they hope Kabir’s grandparents live and where Kabir and Rani find kindness and second chances. This powerful story illuminates the problem of homelessness and the justice system in India, yet gives readers hope in human kindness and the possibilities of change. I honestly felt like crying with joy during the last third of the book — it so emotionally resonate.
Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aleksey & Olga Ivanov (ages 9 – 12)
When Tony’s mother is sent to jail, Tony is sent to stay with a great uncle he has never met in the Sierra Nevada mountains. With his tió and a search-and-rescue dog named Gabe by his side, Tony learns how to track wild animals, is welcomed to the Cowboy Church, and makes new friends at the Mountain School. Most importantly, his uncle Gabe shows Tony what unconditional love is –for the first time in his life.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (ages 10+)
Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (ages 9 – 12)
Ruby doesn’t want her new and only friend to learn that her mom is in jail. To make matters worse, Ruby thinks that her friend’s family is the reason her mom IS in jail. I found this to be a thoughtful coming-of-age story about a girl who feels like she has two lives — one on the inside and one on the outside, and how she integrates the two. Kids will be able to put themselves into Ruby’s shoes and experience what it’s like to be her.