Please welcome my guest author today, Padma Venkatraman. Many people might not know that in addition to being an acclaimed children’s book and young adult author, Padma is also a scientist! I think one of the reasons why Padma’s books resonate with authenticity is that she grew up well-educated but surrounded by poverty. She grew up in a single-parent household, unusual for India.
Padma and her mother also did a lot of charity work in their community, particularly with impoverished youth. Her stories are crafted from the reality of Indians who survive on less than $2 dollars a day, 68% of India’s population. This is not a mere statistic to Padma; she knows these children and their daily lives. She brings their stories to life in her books, and her readers, including myself, exit her books with a little more understanding about life in India, while also inspired with hope for a happy ending for all children in their situation.
Her latest book, Born Behind Bars, has been described as:
“An optimistic and earnest tale of the power of hope and the gift of family in all forms.”
by Booklist (Starred Review)
“…compelling novel… evocative details…full of action. A gritty story filled with hope and idealism.”
by Kirkus (another Starred Review)
Born Behind Bars is also a Junior Library Guild Selection. You can preorder it here.
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman
Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s never met his dad, so the only family he’s got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost “uncle” who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can–run away as fast as his legs will take him. How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way? Fortunately, he befriends Rani, another street kid, and she takes him under her wing. But plotting their next move is hard–and fraught with danger–in a world that cares little for homeless, low caste children. This is not the world Kabir dreamed of–but he’s discovered he’s not the type to give up. Kabir is ready to show the world that he–and his mother–deserve a place in it. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
We doing a 24-hour giveaway of Born Behind Bars! Please enter using the Rafflecopter at the bottom.
p.s. Here is one more.
The Swag is in the Socks by Kelly Baptiste
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“The best part of this book is that while Xavier has some challenges, he also has a well-rounded life. I have often wondered about the effect of books that showcase issues like foster care, incarcerated parents, or physical differences in a way that makes these things seem like the only issue in a child’s life. I’ve had students with incarcerated parents, and I think it would help them more to see a character like Xavier who is dealing with this reality and talking to his mother, but who also has a stable life, a supportive network of family and friends, and interests at school. This is true also of the treatment of his stutter. He is in therapy at school, he often has to use coping skills to speak, but goes on with his life. Sundee Frazier’s new Mighty Inside is the only other book that I can recall that addresses speech challenges.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Middle Grade Books Featuring Characters Who are Incarcerated
When I finish the first few early drafts of any novel that’s been scheduled for publication, I start to search for books that may be similar in theme – and my interest in similarly themed books continues as time goes by.
The protagonist of Born Behind Bars is Kabir – a boy who is born in jail. Although his living conditions are horrific, he has a loving mother and kind teacher and inmates. Then, a new warden takes over and decides he’s too old to remain in jail. She decides to turn him out on his own without his mother, who remains in jail although she’s innocent. Kabir is determined to find a way to set her free, too; and when he meets Rani, a homeless girl, the two set out to find Kabir’s long-lost father, hoping that he will help Kabir achieve his goal.
As I wrote Born Behind Bars, I became interested in other middle grade novels featuring characters who are incarcerated. Although I found brilliant young adult books and picture books that related to this topic and featured characters from marginalized or underrepresented communities, most of the middle grade titles I came across featured white protagonists. So, the list below isn’t as diverse as I’d like – but here (below, in alphabetical order by author name) are some of the great middle grade titles I read during my writing journey, which I’d like to acknowledge – and I encourage others to read:
Ruby on the Outside by Nora Rayleigh Baskin
Ruby’s mom is imprisoned and only her aunt knows this. When Margalit moves into the condo where Ruby lives, the two girls become fast friends. But the secret Ruby is hiding looms over them, threatening to break their friendship – because Margalit’s life seems closely connected to the event that put Ruby’s mom in prison. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
Wish by Barbara O’Connor
Charlie has a bad temper – and she has good reasons for it. Her father is in jail and her mother is unable to care for her. Every day, for as long as she can remember, she’s been making the same wish. When she’s sent away to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it seems impossible that her wish will come true. But then she meets Wishbone, a four-legged friend, and she also gets a two-legged friend named Howard – and she begins to question whether what she wished for all her life is really what she needs. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
Perry lives in a correctional facility with his mom – until a new district attorney decides Perry would be better off in a foster home. Ironically, when Perry moves away from the facility, he feels trapped. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, he begins to ask questions – and seek answers – about why she was incarcerated. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her twelfth birthday, Zoe receives a letter from her father – whom she’s never heard from before. He’s in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. She decides to reply to him, and they begin to correspond – but Zoe must keep this correspondence secret from her mother, who doesn’t want Zoe to have any contact with him. But the more Zoe hears from her father, the more she’s convinced that he’s telling the truth – and the more she grows determined to seek justice on his behalf. Breaking News – I believe I read on Marks’s Twitter feed that this novel will soon be a movie! [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli
Cammie is motherless and her dad is a prison warden. As her thirteenth birthday approaches, Cammie decides she needs mothering – and she seeks female support from the inmates, who befriend her. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
The interwoven stories of six children who meet for a weekly chat – in a safe space with no adults listening in. One of the six is Haley, whose father is incarcerated. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
Ruby in the Sky by Zulick Ferrulo
Ruby doesn’t want kids at school to discover that her mother has been arrested. But it’s exhausting to keep secrets when Ahmad Saleem – a boy in her class – befriends her. To complicate matters, Ruby meets Abigail, whom no one else seems to trust. As Ruby’s mother’s trial draws near and Abigail is threatened with eviction, Ruby is forced to decide whether to keep her silence and risk losing the people she loves. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Chrystal D. Giles’s Upcoming Novel
Obviously, I couldn’t possibly have read a book that doesn’t even have a title yet – but I thought it would be fun to end this list with a book I’m sure I’ll be adding to my TBR pile next year. I was thrilled to hear that Giles is working on a new book related to the topic of incarceration, which will add much-needed diversity to my list of middle grade novels relating to this theme – as, indeed, I trust Born Behind Bars will. Here’s a short synopsis of Giles’s book:
Lawrence feels disconnected–from his new school, from his new town, even from his family since Pop’s been away–but an old iPod that belonged to his Pop and a chess program at a local community center gives Lawrence a chance to reconnect and examine who he is, and who he wants to become. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
24-Hour Giveaway of BORN BEHIND BARS!
We doing a 24-hour giveaway of Born Behind Bars! Please use the Rafflecopter below to enter. We can only mail to U.S. and A.F.O. addresses.
Photo by CT headshots
Padma Venkatraman is the acclaimed author of THE BRIDGE HOME, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END, and CLIMBING THE STAIRS. Her latest novel, BORN BEHIND BARS, is scheduled for September 7 release from Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House) and can already be pre-ordered. BORN BEHIND BARS has received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Click here to read an excerpt. To learn more about Padma, check out her website and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.