Stephen Hankock


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 14:00-15:30 Room I

Speaker: Stephen D. Hancock (USA)

Doing Time with Daddy: Exploring Issues of Incarceration through Children’s Literature

Stephen D. Hancock, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina Charlotte



Children’s literature and specifically picture books for young children are often scrutinized and deemed inappropriate when sensitive or controversial issues are addressed. Though many children endure stressful lives of dysfunction, some would suggest that children’s books should not be an avenue for healthy expression and emotional healing. Jacqueline Woodson, however, has defied the mainstream ideology concerning children’s books as she has written beautifully about real life issues children face. Woodson has written about issues of racism The Other Side, abandonment Our Gracie Aunt, and parental incarceration Visiting Day. Though these topics are sensitive, they are real issues that many children deal with daily. Woodson’s picture books afford children a space to make sense of emotions, thoughts and misunderstandings. In fact, realistic fiction provides a safe place where children can sort out upheavals in their lives (Bargiel, et al, 1997). While books that deal with popular and lighthearted subjects will always be a part of children’s literature, narratives that highlight realistic and relevant issues enable readers the ability to connect with others and express ideas concerning a variety of topics present in their lives.

The elementary classroom is an optimal environment for children to discuss the sensitive issues that Woodson addresses in her books. Unfortunately, the values, beliefs, and experiences of many teachers compel them to scrutinize sensitive topics as inappropriate for young children (Wollman-Bonilla, 1998). In urban elementary schools where 75% to 85% of the teachers are white women (U.S. Census, 2003) and 76% of the students are children of color (Council of Great Schools, 2003), the sociocultural gap between student and teacher creates a cultural barrier that prohibit teachers from connecting to the needs of students. As a result of cultural illiteracy, many teachers don’t see the relevance and benefit in discussing issues of racism, abandonment and parental incarceration. Though many teachers might classify these topics as an inappropriate for young children, Woodson has appropriately and relevantly conveyed the aforementioned issues, and specifically parental incarceration, in a child friendly manner.

In Visiting Day, she explores the experience of an African American girl and her grandmother as they prepare to visit a loved-one in prison. Many teachers might find this topic inappropriate for young children. In elementary schools throughout the country, however, an estimated 1.5 million children have a parent in state or federal prison (Mumola, 2000; Seymore, 1998). The psychological, social, and cultural reality of parental incarceration can negatively affect the attitude, academic and achievement of young children (Seymore, 1998). Through Woodson’s children’s book Visiting Day, this work explores issues of parental incarceration, how it may help children connect to others, and its importance in classroom discourse.

Issues of incarceration:

We have come to a point in time, where the power of good children’s stories can no longer be muted concerning controversial issues and specifically the sensitive topic of parental incarceration. In 1999, children ages 5 and under represented 22% of the minors with incarcerated parents and an unprecedented 58% of children with parents in prison were children ages 5-10, with a mean age of 8 (Mumola, 2000). These numbers are sure to increase as the nation’s prison population grows an average of 6.5% a year (Seymore, 1998). The growth of our prison population will undoubtedly place more students at risk of being further marginalized in classrooms that refuse to discuss issues of incarceration.

The problem in urban classrooms is further exacerbated when we find that of the state prisoners in the U.S. 90% of the men were fathers (Mumola, 2000). Consequently, a void of male influence and connection is apparent in the life of their young children. Couple the fatherless travesty with cultural disconnect between student and teacher and socio-educational issues will abound in the classroom. I contend that relevant and culturally appropriate children’s literature is an effective avenue to connect teachers to students’ experiences and vice versa. In fact, Johnson and Waldfogel has reported that regular connection and contact with an adult who seek to understand their plight and validation of their experiences is what children of incarcerated parents need most (2002). They also contend that through consistent contact and safe attachment children are able to explore from a safe base (Johnson and Waldfogel, 2002).

Though 40% of imprisoned fathers reported weekly contact with their children, 57% reported never having a personal visit from their child (Mumola, 2000). For those children who haven’t visited their fathers, Jacqueline Woodson’s book Visiting Day in the hands of teachers, guardians, and others is a compelling story that will validate the issue of incarcerated parents and possibly help children resolve fears of visiting a prison. It is imperative to note that children’s literature is not a panacea for the plethora of issues children of incarcerated parents must face. It can be, however, an avenue to help children connect and express their feelings.

The Power of Children’s Literature:

Visiting Day was inspired by real life experiences that occurred in Jacqueline Woodson’s life. In her author’s notes she describes how her Uncle Robert, being the best dancer in the family, went to prison when she was young. She talks of their love and how it didn’t matter the crime he committed. Woodson’s recollection as a young child of boarding the bus for the prison is a central experience in the story. She also recalls how the power of her uncle’s laughter and presence would free her, for just a moment, from the bars of prison. It is from a sense of hope and love that Woodson pens this beautiful story of a transcendent bond between father and daughter.

The illustrator had an equally powerful experience that inspired the beautiful life like pictures. James E. Ransome recounts his story as an adult but reveals that though his brother was incarcerated the stigma and shame of an incarcerated relative does not cease in adulthood. In his only visit to see his brother, Ransome was able to capture the emotion, colors, voice and power of the text with realistic images. The detailed facial expressions complete the story and add depth of emotion, realism, familiarity and character to a story of commitment, support and love.

The story starts with grandma frying chicken at 6:00 a.m. while the little girl and narrator lies awake smiling and thinking of her dad. In an unscripted but powerfully insightful image, grandma is shown doing her granddaughters hair, while the little girl sits and quietly imagines that her dad is also getting ready for her visit. After a visit from a neighbor who is unable to take the trip and an eye scold from grandma warning her not to sass, the little girl and her grandma board the bus to the prison. While on the bus passengers mix, mingle and share food like a large family and the little girl eats her fill and doses off to sleep with a full stomach. When she awakes the long trip has ended and the bus arrives at the prison. The little girl and her grandma smile with delight as they visit. The father shows equal joy as his little girl is enthralled with her daddy and he with her. For a moment it seems she loses herself in her fathers smile, his love, and his energy forgetting she’s in prison. After what you can imagine were the final hugs, through vividly emotional expressions the family displays the bittersweet reality that spending time with daddy is too short. Sullen faces and tender hearts now fill the space between father and daughter as they depart. Though sadness abound, grandma’s hand reassures the little girl that “it’s not forever going to be like this.” As the sky turns a deep blue and night approaches, grandma comforts with hope. “One day, we’ll be able to wake up and have Daddy right there in our house again, and we won’t have to take long bus rides once a month and walk home form the bus top hand in hand, feeling a little sad…” Grandma further encourages her granddaughter that doing time with daddy gives them the opportunity to “count their blessings love each other up and make biscuits and cakes and pretty pictures to send daddy.” The story ends as they renew their anticipation and plans for his release.

While this book may not cure all the pains that children of incarcerated parents may endure, it is a voice of validation and understanding. Having been birthed from real experiences, adds to Visiting Day’s power to connect with children and foster conversation, understanding and possibly healing. In fact, this story is important for both children with imprisoned parents as well as for children without incarcerated parents. Woodson’s story line can foster multiple perspectives, empathy, and sensitivity from children and adults who are living with the issue of incarceration or trying to vicariously understand it.

While reading the book to my seven year old daughter, I found through a series of questions how she viewed the topic. Our dialogue:

Me: Looking at the title and cover picture, what do you think this story is about? Daughter: “She is going to visit her dad at work, it’s like when I come to work with you.” Me: Showing the picture of the father preparing for the visit, I asked: Where do you think her dad is in this picture?

Daughter: “At work.”

Not until the visit ended and my daughter saw the police, the little girl’s and the father’s facial expression did she realize that the father was in jail. At this point, she asked,

Daughter: “What did he do?”

Me: “I don’t know. Do you think it mattered to his daughter?

Daughter: “No because she loved him.”

Me: “How do you feel about this book?”

Daughter: “It’s good! It teaches the little girl that she doesn’t have to be sad because she will see her father again.”

Me: “Is this a good book for your classmates?”

Daughter: “Yes, I would give this book to my friend Janet because she said her dad’s in jail.”

Me: “How would the book help Janet?”

Daughter: “I think that the book will help her know that it’s O.K. to be sad and miss your dad.

Me: “What have you learned from this story?”

Daughter: “I learned that you should love your dad even if he is in jail.”

It is evident in this short exchange that first, children can handle issues that many feel are controversial or inappropriate; second, good children’s stories have the power to illuminate understanding; and third, children are able to use real or vicarious experiences to relate to subjects and take on different perspectives. Though, our dynamic as father and daughter enabled her to be comfortable and expressive, her responses were authentic. She accepted the story at her developmental level and was reconnected to a real life situation of one of her classmates. In the hands of effective teachers, Woodson’s ¬Visiting Day can be a powerful tool for communication and connection.

Implications for Teachers:

Burnett (1997) contends that it is beneficial to the development and success of children when teachers are able and willing to relate to the real life issues students face. She further asserts that because children learn through reading and listening to stories, children’s literature is a platforms for children to connect personal experiences with others (Burnett, 1997). Since children of incarcerated parents require specialized attention and services (Gentry, 1998), it is imperative that educational and social work professionals find effective ways to connect children to their environment. Unfortunately, many educational professionals reject or resist using children’s literature as a positive form for children to express their feelings about sensitive or controversial issues. Woodson’s Visiting Day qualifies as a sensitive issue text that deals with sociocultural experiences foreign to most elementary teachers. Wollman-Bonilla (1998) asserts that “teachers commonly object to texts that reflect gender, ethnic, race, or class experiences that differ from their own” (p.289). However, I believe when teachers reflect on their personal biases and prejudices, deal with their personal histories, and understand their cultural beliefs they are more willing to explore sensitive and foreign topics. In fact, teachers who exercise reflective practice are also less likely to categorize books as:

1. inappropriate for children because it might frighten or corrupt them;

2. inappropriate for children because it doesn’t promote dominant or mainstream values; and

3. inappropriate because a book highlights racism, sexism, and other social problems and dilemmas (Wollman-Bonilla, 1998).

Using children’s literature is one avenue that will allow teachers to relate to issues that otherwise might be foreign or controversial. Communicating across cultures and socioeconomic boundaries require teachers to have multiple perspectives in an effort to open their eyes to the social and personal challenges of their students (Hancock, 2006). In urban schools throughout the U.S. children of incarcerated parents are present in many classrooms. A fundamental notion that teachers should understand is that all children seek love and acceptance from their teacher and at no time are teachers to pass judgment, ignore or belittle students’ experiences (Hancock, 2006). Teachers, parents, counselors, librarians and other professionals that serve children must find pathways to connect with students in an appropriate and helpful manner. Educational professionals can no longer ignore the issues of parental incarceration. Educational professionals and child welfare providers must realize what children have long since understood….if you ignore my issue you ignore me.


As stated, children’s literature is not a panacea for the ills of children of incarcerated parents. It is however, an avenue where children and adults can explore issues of incarceration in child appropriate language and images. Since elementary classrooms in the United States are populated with children of incarcerated parents, a present effort to address, support, and connect is needed.

Jacqueline Woodson has provided an outstanding tool to help families, teachers, and children explore issues of incarceration through children’s literature. The text is appropriate to engage young children and the illustrations are rich with color, emotion, and movement. To some, Visiting Day will challenge ideals of relationship and justice. While to others the story will speak volumes of a life of love that transcend prison bars. No matter how it’s read, it is an appropriate and valued text for children, especially children who are doing time with daddy.



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