Book explores how kids cope with parents in prison

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The cover of local author Becky Birtha's book evokes prison bars because it focuses on kids coping when their parents are incarcerated. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The cover of local author Becky Birtha's book evokes prison bars because it focuses on kids coping when their parents are incarcerated. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nearly 3 million children in the U.S. have a parent in jail or prison. Local author Becky Birtha is hoping her new children’s book, “Far Apart, Close in Heart,” will help those kids express how they’re feeling — and teach their friends and classmates what it’s like to have a parent behind bars.

“I think way more families than we realize have a situation like this, and … people don’t talk about it,” she said, explaining why she wanted to write about children with parents in jail or prison.

“It’s not something that families talk about or share outside of the family,” Birtha said. “And the book has made it possible for me to learn about that from some families. People that I would never have imagined had this situation and will say, ‘Oh, I need to get a copy of this book because my brother’s cousin’s child is in this situation.’

“Or someone said to me, ‘When I grew up, my cousin was in this situation, and it never even occurred to me what he must be going through.'”

A look inside "Far Apart, Close in Heart"
A look inside “Far Apart, Close in Heart” (Emma Lee / WHYY)

The book is a departure for Birtha, who lives in Delaware County. She typically writes children’s picture books set in the past. “Lucky Beans” teaches kids about life during the Great Depression. “Grandma’s Pride” shows what it’s like for African-American kids to grow up under Jim Crow laws. That story won the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Birtha said she chose a non-fiction approach to her latest book so it could include children reacting in different ways to their parents spending time behind bars.

For example, Rafael is embarrassed when other kids flood him with questions about why his dad is in jail. Emily feels shocked and hurt when her friend says she was told to stay away from her because Emily’s parent is in prison.

“I think that children have immense feelings. Sometimes way bigger than I think adults give them credit for,” said Birtha about what she’s trying to capture in the book. “I also think this issue of having a parent who’s incarcerated, it’s not a small issue. It’s huge to a child, and it’s not an issue that’s easily resolved. It’s a lifetime issue.”

This story is part of the Reentry Project, an unprecedented collaboration among 15 of Philadelphia’s general interest newsrooms and community and ethnic media organizations to reveal and investigate credible responses to the challenges of recidivism and re-entry. You can find more stories from other partners in the project at https://thereentryproject.org/

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