Today, December 14, is the anniversary of the date in 1954 that the UN General Assembly recommended there should be a Universal Children’s Day. At the suggestion of Pat at Children’s Books Heal and Vivian at Positive Parental Participation, we are going to be doing our part to raise awareness of the plight of children around the globe and to promote the welfare of children in the world by posting books which focus on multicultural/multiracial issues, human rights, and/or children who have helped to change the world in some way.
I had two books on hold for this day at the library, and sadly neither came through in time. I have therefore chosen a book that highlights the rights and needs of children of parents in prison.
Written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by James E. Ransome.
Published by Scholastic Press, 2002
Themes: Prison, children’s visiting, prisoners, Afro-American, grandmothers, fathers and daughters
Availability: Sadly this book is out of print, but we have ten circulating in our library system, so I hope you do too!
Only on VISITING day is there chicken frying in the kitchen at 6:00 A.M. and Grandma smiling soft and low, smiling her secret just-for-daddy-and-me smile, and me lying in bed and smiling my just-for-Grandma-and Daddy smile.
VISITING DAY is a book about special day each month for the little girl who narrates this story. It is a day when she dresses up, rides a bus with her grandmother, eats chicken and cornbread. For several pages the destination remains a mystery, carefully building the suspense. The highlight of her day is when she gets to visit her incarcerated father. Told and illustrated from a child’s point of view, the story shows how children can have unconditional love for their parents, even if a parent has made a mistake. The illustrations are amazing in their warm realism and their attention to detail. Little things in the background, a calendar, girl’s drawings scotched to wall of her dad’s cell, make this book so engaging. Two vivid double-paged wordless spreads depict Grandma fixing the little girl’s hair and the pair boarding the bus, with the reader still unaware where this bus load of friendly laughing people is headed. These wordless illustrations are packed with communication.
Why I like this book:
There is so much love, complicity and respect woven into this opening, I couldn’t wait to read further. It is a beautiful, powerful and emotional story, made even more so when one read’s in an afterword that the author drew on childhood memories of her uncle and grandmother. If that weren’t enough, we then discover the illustrator, unbeknownst to editor and author, was dealing with his own brother’s incarceration. Clearly these personal stories are so hard for adults and children to share and process, and how important that a child can read of another child facing this same challenge, in an atmosphere of love, grace and optimism for a better future.
We do not know the crime committed by the father, and we do not need to, we simply discover the special joy sadness of the monthly visit and the knowledge that this little girl retains of both her father’s and grandmother’s love for her and each other and the respect maintained in the family. This is a story not about crime, but a little girl awaiting her father’s release from prison and spending her months writing letters and drawing pictures for a very grateful daddy.
The situation is presented very realistically. There is a neighbor across the hallway, Mrs Tate, who cannot afford the bus fare for the monthly visit to her son, and instead passes her gifts to the grandmother, who delivers them. The bus approaches the prison wall, with barbed wire atop. A uniformed officer stands in the background as the visit comes to an end. Waiting for a parent to be released is hard and this isn’t diminished here, but this little girls and her grandmother count their blessings and support each other through the process.
There’s as much information in Ransome’s lush illustrations as in Woodson’s lyrical text, and so a child’s understanding can grow with each reading. Prisoners are almost universally of color and a guard who is white, is clearly intentional on the artists’s (and art directors??) part! A too knowing sadness sometimes in the little girl’s eyes, and a mother who is clearly not in the picture may not be picked up on first reading.
I find this controversial topic is handled very delicately. Visiting Day isn’t so much a children’s book about prison as it is a book about putting the tragic fact of a father’s incarceration into an acceptable context a small child can handle.
I don’t wish to add any activities for this book, and I would not necessarily recommend this book in general for children who have no experience with prison, though I do feel it teaches a lot about compassion and unconditional love. However, for children who have a mother or father in prison, who have been in and out of foster care as their parents go in and out of prison, this is a wonderful book for them. I think it is valuable for teachers, carers and therapists to know that such a book is available for specific children they might know.