Jacqueline Woodson's Visiting Day, a children's book about prison
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Visiting Day isn't so much a children's book about prison as it is a book about putting the sad fact of a father's incarceration into a benign context a small child can handle. This is a book intended to keep a vulnerable child adequately sheltered from too much too soon about the adult world.
That is to say, Coretta Scott King award-winner Jacqueline Woodson does a masterly, motherly job, as an author, of shielding her readers from an excess of unpleasantness.
Children crave routine, and this book provides it. Visiting Day is about that special day when a daughter gets to visit her daddy in prison. (Webmaster's note: Woodson explores absentee parents in a historical context in Coming On Home Soon.)
Today begins with Grandma in the kitchen and a little girl lying in bed, grinning in anticipation of seeing Daddy. Grandma braids Daughter's hair while Daddy is imagined getting ready himself for the big visit.
Notably, Visiting Day is presented as a community event. The bus the girl and her grandma board is filled with neighbors going to visit their own loved ones in prison, and everyone shares a joyous meal en route as part of the routine.
James E. Ransome's paintings are essential to the story. Daddy's love is there to be seen on his face, and visitation is clearly nothing short of pure joy for the little girl. Other prisoners with their families seem just as happy. Coretta Scott King award-winner Ransome chooses at this moment to show no hint of the prison environs.
But then, time is up. A stern prison guard stands sternly by the door Daddy mournfully exits. Daughter's face shows that visitation couldn't possibly last long enough.
Grandma attempts to mediate the sadness with activity upon the return home. There's a cake with Daddy's name on it and cards to make for sending to Daddy.
The paintings say more than the text, and intentionally so. To the adult eye, the words seem almost unnaturally benign (considering the subject at hand), appropriate for the youngest child.
But this children's book about prison is built to grow along with a child. There's more information in the paintings than in Woodson's text, and so a child's understanding can grow with each reading - or, rather, viewing.
A calendar in Daddy's cell, marking off days. Barbed wire atop the prison walls. Prisoners almost universally of color and a guard who is white. A too knowing sadness sometimes in the little girl's eyes, and a mother who is clearly not in the picture.
Yes, this is a book that silently poses many unanswered questions. Among them: Where is Mommy? What is Daddy in prison for? And, most importantly, how old will daughter be when he gets out?
While this children's book about prison is clearly intended for the children of prisoners, it could certainly spark a dialogue with any child. In keeping with the current trend in multicultural books, Visiting Day - a children's book about prison could be used to expose comfortably situated children with both a Mommy and Daddy present to a world in which even the existence of parents can't be taken for granted.
(Great therapy for parents who are feeling a tad underappreciated!)
An afterword includes notes from both author and illustrator regarding their personal experiences with family members in prison.
Read more of Steve's reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.