All I Ever Wanted… Stories of Children of the Incarcerated

This blog post was written by guest blogger Erika Duncan, Founder and Director of Herstory Writers Workshop.

At any given time, there are 2.7 million children with one or two parents in prison or jail in the United States. Some are told that “Mommy is in school” or “Daddy is in the army.” Others are told nothing. Others, who do know, have nowhere to turn with their longings for the absent parent, in a society where too often family members, social service providers, and school personnel try to limit their contact with the one who is locked away.

All I Ever Wanted… is a very special book, written by nine young people with parents in prison and one older woman looking back, with the goal of helping others to know how it feels to go through the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence without a father or mother, and how it feels to suddenly find out the truth.

“When I was little, I remember my mom sitting at the kitchen table, scratching off the lottery (as usual), and I remember myself going up to her to ask her, ‘Where’s my daddy?’ and her exact words to me—a little six-year-old girl with pigtails and circular type glasses, with a little hunch— ‘Your father is in the army. He left when you were one, and I don’t think that he’s coming home anytime soon,’” writes Malaysia.

“All I wanted was him to tuck me in when I was little. For him to pick me up and throw me in the air. For him to be on the empty side when I ran in the room and jumped on the bed because it was thundering outside. For him to be there at my sweet sixteen when it was time for the Daddy-Daughter Dance.”

This is a book that speaks personally and privately to the to the girl who has a secret she is not ready to share, or to the boy who has suddenly become unreachable, as he listens to his teachers and fellow students respond with empathy and caring and realizes he is not so alone. It is a book that sheds light on the reality of impact of mass incarceration, often for very minor crimes, on families.

“At the park I see all the dads pushing their kids on the swing set,” writes Nicole. “When they get off I run and sit in the swing seat, wondering would my dad ever come and push me. I watch a lot of father/daughter movies and I run outside and I look up at the sky and ask God, ‘What did I do not deserve a father in my life?’

“When you cry your father is able to catch your tears and he smiles at you and all of a sudden your tears disappear. But when I cry my tears race down my face until they hit my cheeks and never stop, no one’s there to wipe my tears away, so they dry up and that’s where they always remain.”

Teachers can use the book to teach empathy as each young narrator shares their story.

As this book reaches a national audience of school counselors, teachers and students, it is our hope that it will be passed around from hand to hand, in the visiting rooms of prisons, in parenting classes in prisons and jails, and in schools throughout our nation, where teachers and counselors must begin to understand the realities of the lives that so many of their students are leading. We hope that children of the incarcerated will find it, and that it will help them begin to come out of the sense of shame and isolation that has plagued so many of their lives. We hope that this book will help open hard conversations when parents come home, so that they can truly see how their children were feeling. And finally, we hope that each writer in this book will be able to maintain the strength she or he began to gather in telling these stories on the page.

All I Ever WantedStories of Children of the Incarcerated is now available to the First Book community of educators through the First Book Marketplace.

For more information on how to engage with students experiencing trauma, like the absence of a loved one, download our Trauma Toolkit from the Free Resources section of the First Book Marketplace.

image of an educator reading to two kids from a picture book. There is text that says, 'Matching Challenge: Be a Champion for Educators! Your gift by May 31 can go twice as far to provide new, high-quality books and other resources educators need to help students unlock their full potential.' There is a red button in the bottom, right corner that says, 'I'll give now'.