Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated

By Becky Birtha, illustrated by Maja Kastelic. Albert Whitman and Company, 2017. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

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With tender watercolor illustrations, this book does an amazing job of capturing the unspoken emotions of a variety of children who are dealing with a parent in prison. Lacey feels lonely and scared at night. Rashid is angry with his mom. Yen wonders if it is her fault that that her mom is in prison, and Rafael is distressed at the questions other children ask him. Emily loses a friend because the other girl’s mother thinks she will be a bad influence. The writing is unflinching yet compassionate, gentle but precise. The narrative is told in the third person (telling the stories of these children), but also moves into the second person: “Hearing those words might leave you sad, shocked, hurt, or with other feelings.”

There is a subtle shift in the second half of the book where some of the children sort out how to communicate or find some resolution to their specific difficulty. “Even when you think nothing can ever get better, things can change. And sometimes you can help make changes.” One character, Joanna, says she misses her siblings and is allowed to call all of them in their separate foster homes. And Jermaine can talk to his grandfather because he will listen to the boy.

Is this book relevant if you have a meeting with no children of incarcerated parents? At first, this seems to be a book specifically for those children. On reflection, however, it would be a tremendous book for any First-day school. In this time of great political and sociological divisiveness, it is imperative that we raise our children with as much compassionate understanding as possible. Who knows why someone in the classroom might be uncommunicative or acting out? If the child can imagine that another could be struggling to manage emotions brought on by something like incarceration (or divorce, illness, or addiction), he or she can be the one to offer kindness and nonjudgmental attention. The discussions brought on by this book could truly shape our children into the generous people we hope they all will become.

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