Guest Post: Sara Greenwood’s Brother Is Away
Each December I post a list of great children’s books produced during the previous year every day as part of my 31 Days, 31 Lists series. This lists run the gamut from poetry to unconventional picture books to biographical nonfiction. One list in particular covers those books that don’t slot neatly into any other categories. I call them my Books With a Message titles. After all, children’s literature in America was founded on the presumption that books for the young would provide some kind of moral guidance. It isn’t that much farther a jump to look to books for kids that touch on messages and reassurances about a wide swath of issues facing children and adults today.
Sara Greenwood’s new book My Brother Is Away, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, would certainly fit this definition. And while it is not the first picture book I’ve seen about a loved one who is incarcerated, it strikes a very specific note. A note that I’ve not seen often. As the publisher describes the book:
“With her older brother in prison, a young girl copes with the confusing feelings his absence creates. At times she remembers the way her brother would carry her on his shoulders or how he would make up stories to tell her at bedtime. Other times she feels angry and wants to fly so far away that she can forget what happened.
When her Mama and Daddy take her on the 500-mile journey to visit him, a trip she knows not all families are able to make, the girl is excited but also nervous. But the nerves turn to joy when she sees him—everything is different, but everything is the same too. Her brother is not home, but his love hasn’t changed.
With words that are spare, gentle, and reassuring, this picture book will help young readers with similar stories feel less alone and give other readers a window into the struggles some children face.”
This story is one that is near and dear to Ms. Greenwood’s heart. Today, she joins us to give a glimpse to the story behind the story, and why she chose to write My Brother Is Away in the first place. Take it away, Sara:
In first grade I sat in a car with girls from my Brownie troop. We were coming back from a meeting or going to an event — the specifics aren’t clear anymore. But what has stayed in my mind for forty plus years, what I can still feel viscerally to this day, is a comment one of my troop members made:
“I saw your brother on TV. He did something bad.”
A few weeks before, my brother, who was a senior in high school, had been arrested. The story made the paper and the evening news. I was a mix of emotions, a jumble of feelings that were new and scary and didn’t make sense, and now the whole mess was out in the open for a carful of Brownies to hear.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
As far as I could tell, there weren’t other families like mine. How could there be? I’d never heard about a classmate or neighbor with a relative who’d gone to jail. So I lied when someone asked about my brother. He’d moved away, I’d tell them (which was kind of true), or I said he was really busy. Mostly, I stayed silent. For years, that silence was my shield.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, over five million American kids have or have had an incarcerated parent. When extended to other family members, that number grows exponentially. In 2018, a groundbreaking study led by FWD.us and Cornell University found that by adulthood, half of the population will have had a family member who’s spent time in jail or prison. Let that sink in. Half of the population.
Statistically, there’s a child in your class or on your soccer team, in your neighborhood or Brownie troop, in your temple, church, or mosque who has been affected by incarceration. Their lives have been turned upside down. They carry shame and embarrassment, anger and sadness, loneliness and confusion, and mostly they bear it all privately.
I wrote My Brother is Away for each of them. I want children to know they are not alone, that others have lived through the very same thing. I wrote it for the children who’ve been spared this particular hardship, hoping they’ll better see the struggles their peers might be facing. And I wrote it for the adults who work with children as a reminder that we don’t always know the whole story.
I hope the book brings a measure of comfort. I hope it feels like a friend.
A big thank you to Sara for sharing her story here today. My Brother Is Away is on bookstores and library shelves now, so give it a peek. Thanks too to Sarah Lawrenson and the folks at Random House Children’s Books for suggesting today’s guest post.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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