Books About Doing Time | Read Woke

Titles on criminal justice and families experiencing incarceration.

As a child of an incarcerated parent, I know that kids suffer and emotionally “do time” along with their parents. When I was little, I felt embarrassed and alone, and I never told anyone that my father was in prison. Then a boy found out about it, teased me, and told our classmates. At 39, I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I often wonder if reading a book like The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos (­Lerner, 2018; Gr 9 Up), in which the protagonist’s ­father is imprisoned, would have helped me deal with my fear and anxiety. Here are more relevant titles.

Missing Daddy. Mariame Kaba. illus. by bria royal. Project NIA. 2018. K-Gr 5.
This picture book is about a young girl who desperately misses her incarcerated father and anxiously awaits ­visitation days. “Daddy went away to prison when I was only three. When I ask my grandma why he’s there, she says, ‘Baby, the reasons are many.’ ” I was that girl in ­ Missing Daddy. The art, with muted backgrounds, pops of color, and simple contoured lines, will hold readers’ attention. Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James ­Ransome (Scholastic, 2002; K-Gr 2), also tells the story of a girl’s joyful reunion with her incarcerated dad.


Teen Incarceration: From Cell Bars to Ankle Bracelets. Patrick Jones. Twenty-First Century. 2016. Gr 4-8.
This title provides historical information, explains terms such as reconciliation and restorative justice, and breaks down the cost of incarceration. Jones also wrote the fiction series “Unbarred,” modern takes on Shakespeare featuring teens who have navigated the criminal justice system. 


The Dozier School for Boys: Forensics, Survivors, and a Painful Past. Elizabeth A. Murray. Twenty-First Century. 2019. Gr 9 Up.
Your son is going to be trained, reformed, and educated. That lie was told to parents whose children went to this Florida institution. Murray recounts the horrific abuse and brutality experienced by students, most of whom were black. The book includes survivors’ stories, photographs, and a forensic discovery that I will use to bring science classes into the Read Woke movement.


Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice. Bryan Stevenson. Ember. 2018. Gr 9 Up.
Reading this book, which covers cases in which poor black people were unjustly convicted of crimes, was overwhelming. I had to put it down and return later to finish it. Stevenson, a lawyer born in a poor, racially segregated community, founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization whose many legal victories have included exonerating inmates on death row and others who were unfairly sentenced. This essential YA adaptation of the best-selling Just Mercy will enlighten teens about the justice system.


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. New Press. 2010. Adult; appropriate for Gr 9 Up.
To reform, we must first learn. Alexander argues that the U.S. War on Drugs led to vastly disproportionate incarceration of black men and serves as a modern-day form of racial oppression. With more than half of young black men in many large American cities in jail, that isn’t “just a system of poverty or poor choices,” she writes, “but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work.” 


Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jesmyn Ward. Scribner. 2017. Adult; appropriate for Gr 9 Up.
This novel gave me chills. Ward takes us on a journey with Jojo, a 13-year-old boy traveling with his mother, little sister, and family friend to pick up his father from prison. He encounters the ghost of a boy who was killed in Parchman State Penitentiary, the same prison where my own father served time. Ward’s lyrical tale beautifully connects the harrowing past with Jojo’s present. Set in rural Mississippi, this masterpiece is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s work.


Cicely Lewis (Twitter: @cicelythegreat) welcomes ­your reading suggestions.

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Derek Avery


Posted : Nov 12, 2019 04:09

Maria Gianferrari

For young readers, I also love Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty and Jacqueline Woodson's Visiting Day.

Posted : Nov 08, 2019 04:27



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