Since I started reading middle grade books five years ago, I’ve been seeing more and more middle grade books with incarcerated parents, and I’m glad the kids who need them will have them. Having a parent in prison is tough, regardless of whether the parent was a positive or negative influence in a child’s life. It also comes with a fair bit of stigma and can be challenging for the entire family for various reasons.
This list features a variety of middle grade books with parents in prison. If you’ve been looking for more books on the subject, this is for you.
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15 Moving Middle Grade Books with Incarcerated Parents
Here are 15 great middle grade books featuring a parent in prison:
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Published: January 14, 2020
Twelve-year-old Zoe Washington’s summer is off to a rough start. She’s not speaking to one of her best friends, for one. Her other best friend is away at summer camp, and the third one has moved away. But things get more complicated when she finds a letter in the mail from her incarcerated birth father. The only problem is that he’s in jail for something “very bad,” and Zoe has never met or spoken to him before.
As she starts to write to Marcus, Zoe realizes that things might not be so black and white — not with her friend Trevor, and certainly not with Marcus. While she learns more about Marcus, she also spends part of her summer interning at a pastry shop.
The Swag Is in the Socks
Published: November 2, 2021
Both of Xavier Moon’s parents are incarcerated. Xavier is not the steal-the-spotlight kind of guy. He’s often in his room playing video games or watching stuff happen from his bedroom window. He also has a stutter that he’s working on — and he has braces. The one thing Xavier really wants to be a part of is the Scepter League, the elite after-school club that only accepts confident, exemplary tween boys. His father, great uncle, and grandfather are all alumni. But when Xavier doesn’t get in, he’s determined to prove to the club leaders that he can be a League boy.
This is a sweet portrayal of a boy finding his voice and growing his confidence with some help from his community.
Ruby on the Outside
Published: June 16, 2015
Eleven-year-old Ruby Danes is about to start middle school, and only her aunt knows her deepest, darkest, most secret secret: her mother is in prison.
Then Margalit Tipps moves into Ruby’s condo complex, and the two immediately hit it off. Ruby thinks she’s found her first true-blue friend—but can she tell Margalit the truth about her mom? Maybe not. Because it turns out that Margalit’s family history seems closely connected to the very event that put her mother in prison, and if Ruby comes clean, she could lose everything she cares about most.
Not An Easy Win
Published: February 28, 2023
Lawrence has had the odds stacked against him for so long. He and his mom and little sister went from living in Charlotte, NC, to finally moving in with his grandma while his father is incarcerated. To make matters worse, Lawrence keeps getting picked on at school and getting into fights which results in his getting expelled. While he’s home, he starts going to the town’s rec center where he learns to play chess. But a boy there keeps trying to get Lawrence to fight. Can he find a way to secure a win for once?
Lo and Behold
Published: May 2, 2023
The last thing Addie wants to do is make a new friend, but when her dad’s summer job takes them across the country, she meets Mateo and finds herself caught up in an exciting project. With the help of a virtual reality headset, she’s suddenly scaling castle walls, dodging angry kittens, and seeing the world in whole new ways. Plus, she has an idea that could be bigger than anything she’s imagined before, but can she right some wrongs first . . . or is it too late? Readers find out later that Addie’s mom is incarcerated because of crimes relating to drug misuse.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
Published: March 1, 2016
This is a fantastic middle grade book about a boy raised in a correctional facility where his mom is an inmate. When Perry moves to the “outside” world, he feels trapped. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, Perry goes on a quest for answers about her past crime. Ultimately, a wonderful examination of what family really means and the importance of seeing inmates as more than just wrongdoers.
Born Behind Bars
Published: September 7, 2021
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.
The Paris Project
Published: October 8, 2019
Cleveland Rosebud Potts has a plan. If she can check off the six items on her très important Paris Project List she will make it out of the small-minded and scorching town of Sassafras, Florida, to a rich and cultured life at The American School of Paris.
Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against Cleveland reaching her goal.
Cleveland is ashamed of her father and angry that her mother and sister are never around because they have to work extra shifts to help out the family. Her Eiffel Tower tin has zero funds. And to top it all off, Cleveland’s best friend Jenna Finch has decided she’s too fancy for her and her neighbor Declan seems to be hiding something.
As Cleveland puts her talents to the test, she must learn how to forgive family for their faults, appreciate friends for exactly who they are, and bloom where she’s planted—even if that’s in a tiny town in central Florida that doesn’t even have a French restaurant. C’èst la vie!
Ruby in the Sky
Published: February 5, 2019
Twelve-year-old Ruby Moon Hayes does not want her new classmates to ask about her father. She does not want them to know her mother has been arrested. And she definitely does not want to make any friends. Ruby just wants to stay as silent and invisible as a new moon in the frozen sky. She and her mother won’t be staying long in Vermont anyway, and then things can go back to the way they were before everything went wrong.
But keeping to herself isn’t easy when Ahmad Saleem, a Syrian refugee, decides he’s her new best friend. Or when she meets “the Bird Lady,” a recluse named Abigail who lives in a ramshackle shed near Ruby’s house. Before long Ahmad and Abigail have become Ruby’s friends―and she realizes there is more to their stories than everyone knows.
Published: August 28, 2018
It all starts when six kids have to meet for a weekly chat–by themselves, with no adults to listen in. There, in the room they soon dub the ARTT Room (short for “A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering them–everything from Esteban’s father’s deportation and Haley’s father’s incarceration to Amari’s fears of racial profiling and Ashton’s adjustment to his changing family fortunes. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they have to hide from the rest of the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.
Published: August 11, 2020
Ten-year-old Della has always had her older sister, Suki: When their mom went to prison, Della had Suki. When their mom’s boyfriend took them in, Della had Suki. When that same boyfriend did something so awful they had to run fast, Della had Suki. Suki is Della’s own wolf–her protector. But who has been protecting Suki? Della might get told off for swearing at school, but she has always known how to keep quiet where it counts. Then Suki tries to kill herself, and Della’s world turns so far upside down, it feels like it’s shaking her by the ankles. Maybe she’s been quiet about the wrong things. Maybe it’s time to be loud.
Bringing Me Back
Published: February 6, 2018
Noah is not having a good year. His mom is in prison, he’s living with his mom’s boyfriend—who he’s sure is just waiting until his mother’s six month sentence is up to kick him out—and he’s officially hated by everyone at his middle school, including his former best friend. It’s Noah’s fault that the entire football program got shut down after last year.
One day, Noah notices a young bear at the edge of the woods with her head stuck in a bucket. A bucket that was almost certainly left outside as part of a school fundraiser to bring back the football team. As days go by, the bear is still stuck—she’s wasting away and clearly getting weaker, even as she runs from anyone who tries to help. And she’s always alone.
Though Noah ignores the taunts at school and ignores his mother’s phone calls from jail, he can’t ignore the bear. Everyone else has written the bear off as a lost cause—just like they have with Noah. He makes it his mission to help her. But rescuing the bear means tackling his past—and present—head-on. Could saving the bear ultimately save Noah, too?
Lizzie Flying Solo
Published: April 16, 2019
Lizzie St. Claire wants to be invisible. Forced to move out of her home, she and her mom now live in a transitional housing shelter, Good Hope, until they can get back on their feet.
Lizzie just wants to keep her head down at Good Hope and her new school, so she doesn’t have to admit the real reason she and her mom lost everything.
But when Lizzie finds herself at the nearby Birchwood Stables, some new friends—along with the arrival of a frightened pony named Fire—help Lizzie to open up and accept help from those around her, even if it means she’ll have more to lose if things change again.
Published: January 24, 2023
After his stepdad goes to jail for violating his parole and hitting his mom, Trev feels like he needs to get bigger and stronger to protect them when his stepdad is released. But is fighting back the best way? This is a slim poignant look at what life is like for some kids and why it’s easy to feel like throwing hands is the most effective way to stay safe. The author shows that with community and education, there can be more far-reaching positive effects.
Published: August 30, 2016
Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill.
Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?
Bonus pick is The Warden’s Daughter (her dad is a warden, not a prisoner, but she lives in the prison anyway).
There they are: 15 of the best middle grade books with incarcerated parents! Which of these books have you read and loved? What did I miss?
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