My favorite part of CLiF events is always helping kids choose their own books to take home. But the CLiF event I went to last week was a little different. There were no kids. It wasn’t in a school, daycare center, or library. We were in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord leading a parent seminar through CLiF’s Children of Prison Inmates Program. We spent the day with approximately two hundred inmates, all of whom had chosen to attend CLiF’s parent seminars on reading with kids and connecting to them through books.
The New Hampshire State Prison for Men is one of three facilities currently partnering with CLiF’s Children of Prison Inmates program. Since the program began thirteen years ago, it has evolved into multi-year partnerships where inmates are able to build on their literacy skills and knowledge and continue to grow their relationships with their children (and nieces, nephews, and grandchildren) through books.
Inmates sat attentively waiting for us to begin, some scanning the hundreds of bright and beautiful children’s books displayed on tables at the front of the room under a friendly Children’s Literacy Foundation banner. Many of these men had been here before; about half raised their hands in each session when asked if they’d attended a CLiF Parent Seminar in the past. But some were new, a little shy, possibly not quite sure what they were in for. These seminars are voluntary, as are all aspects of the program, so these fathers, step-fathers, grandfathers and uncles were there because they wanted to be and because they wanted to improve their relationships with their kids.
We started off by asking what benefits of reading with kids are. “Vocabulary,” one father responded. “Bonding,” another said. “Learning,” offered another. We talked about ways children’s books can create positive spaces for kids who may be facing challenges, how good behavior and important life lessons can be reinforced through books, and that books are great conversation starters. One father talked about how his teenaged daughter, a reluctant reader, has been reading the books he sends home to her from CLiF so they can discuss them. Another mentioned how much his kids – and his wife – appreciate the recordings he sends home of him reading the books aloud so they can share bedtime stories. One said his kids regularly ask when they get to come for another storytelling celebration with CLiF.
These men were engaged, attentive, and respectful, and many were willing to share their experiences with what’s worked for them since they began attending CLiF’s parent seminars, family literacy events, and book giveaways. We compared challenges reading with fidgety kids with short attention spans and talked about how sharing books can open up deeper connections.
And, as usual, the book giveaways were my favorite part. I thought they couldn’t be nearly as powerful without kids present to excitedly choose the perfect book to take home, but I was wrong. The seriousness with which these fathers approached their task – to find a book their child would love – was impressive. Some were a little timid, unsure of their child’s current hobbies or interests, while others knew exactly what they were looking for, such as the next book in the series they sent home last time.
“These guys don’t have a lot of opportunities to send things home or do special things for their kids,” one staff member reminded me, “so this is a pretty big deal for them.” Any inmate who attends a CLiF parent seminar can choose a free new book for each of their children, which CLiF volunteers pack and mail to their homes. We encourage them to write personal notes in the books for the kids to cherish. “Don’t forget to write him a note,” I reminded one dad. “Oh, I definitely will,” he responded. “He always loves that.”
The inmates approached me politely with requests ranging from “What would a thirteen-year old girl like?” to “My daughter is taking ballet lessons and really loves to dance. Do you have books on dancing?” (Absolutely!) to – one of my favorites – “My daughter likes when we sing and do funny voices reading the books over the phone. What’s a good one to do that?” (We chose Where the Wild Things Are, an excellent story for rrrroar-ing and wild rumpus-ing). For the father whose son has gotten into the Goosebumps series through CLiF, we found a new scary mystery series. One father told me, “My daughter’s ten and is just starting to read chapter books. What do you think she might like?” When I asked what things she likes to do, he shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “No problem. You can’t go wrong with Roald Dahl,” I offered. “I loved his books when I was a kid. He’s really funny and perfect for someone just getting into chapter books.” Then I added, “The BFG is my favorite.” I felt pretty good when I saw him tuck it under his arm and bring it to the table to write a note in.
One proud dad bragged, “My daughter has been on the honor roll every semester. She’s going to be the valedictorian. What do you have that might challenge her, something different?” He walked away with Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s Caldecott-winning prose book, saying “I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of this.”
Many of the fathers came up to thank me or shake my hand after the seminar. Their gratitude was even more touching than the kids’ who walk away from CLiF events clutching their new books proudly. For at least an hour-long parent seminar, these men weren’t just inmates; they were fathers.
Watch this video on CLiF’s Children of Prison Inmates program!
Do you want to get involved? Contact CLiF at (802) 244-0944 to volunteer, attend an event, or learn more about our programs. Click here to donate to make programs like this possible.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is the Communications Manager of the Children’s Literacy Foundation. She loves to read, write, and share books with kids. She manages this blog, so if you like it, have thoughts or ideas, or want to contribute a guest post, just let her know! When not helping kids and their parents pick out their new favorite books or managing CLiF outreach, Erika is an MFA in Fiction student at Bennington College’s Writing Seminars. You can follow her social media posts about CLiF at @cliforg or on Facebook.