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Hard time and softback books: Teaching children's literature in prison

Hard time and softback books: Teaching children's literature in prison
Characters from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." (Maurice Sendak)

"Only softback books are allowed inside." That's what the email from the prison liaison said.

I stared at the stack of hardback picture books I'd gathered as samples for a class on writing for kids I was slated to teach the next day at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. Honestly, could a hardback of "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel" be carved into a shiv? Never mind, I thought, and pulled out the soft covers, and packed sketchbooks, comic books, writers' magazines and notebooks and pens.

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Alabama's Donaldson prison, surrounded by razor wire and forests 30 miles west of Birmingham, "specializes in controlling repeat and/or multiple violent offenders with lengthy sentences." At least that's what its website says. My cellphone quit working once I passed the gates.

Inside, my bag of books had to be inspected by security. A female guard patted me down, then led me into a cafeteria-style room, where I dragged two tables under a section of lights that weren't burned out and arranged chairs in a semicircle. I set out my books and props. Then I waited. My lecture was supposed to start at 6:30, but it was 7:30 when the 16 men in white prison uniforms filed in. I apologized that I hadn't, in my spare hour, been able to get my PowerPoint presentation to play on the prison media display.

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Without planning to, I grabbed "Where the Wild Things Are."

The magic of this picture book, I explained, is what it manages in just 338 words. I started to read a bit and a hush fell over the room. I could tell they wanted to listen to the whole story.

I knew the book from memory, as I'd read it so many times to my own children who danced and stomped the wild rumpus around our living room. So I kept reading about how a forest grew in Max's room and "the walls became the world all around him." Maurice Sendak's alchemic words turned that prison classroom into Max's boat, and we were on the journey of imagination together.

The magic of this picture book, I explained, is what it manages in just 338 words.


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When I messed up they all laughed, and I laughed, and kept going. As Max was sailing home, it hit me: I was reading this story about a child who is being punished for making "mischief of one kind and another" in a maximum security prison. My 16 students were on the edge of their seats, listening. They all clapped when Max arrived home and his dinner was still hot.

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Paired up, the men read the other softback picture books. I gave out notebooks and pens and asked them to write their own stories about childhood, school and food. While they were scribbling away, one of the students said, "I can't remember anyone ever reading a story out loud to me." Several of the men around him agreed.

This was almost incomprehensible to me. My mother read to us. My father told us stories. My husband read to me during our first year of marriage under a mosquito net when we lived in China. Even my husband's grandmother, mother of nine and weary grandmother of more than 30, used to speed-read to all the grandkids.

Some national studies suggest that 60% of prison inmates can't read. But this was clearly not the case with my students. When the men finished writing, they read their stories aloud. We listened to tales about a mother who cooked banana pudding with bananas just mushy enough, a sister who heated up Spaghetti-O's with an attitude, and an ominous aunt who served okra and Brussels sprouts with an "eat it or else!"

An older man wrote about his kindergarten teacher who didn't understand he loved to read, just not in front of people. Another wrote about his mother who whipped him in front of his class to teach him a lesson.

We were running out of our allotted time, but I looked over at the prison guard and he was dozing, so we kept going.

They remembered landlines and grandfathers' cigars and shotgun houses and being the only boy among sisters and getting up too early to catch the bus. One man read about his sister's pained face from hair-braiding when he saw "I Love My Hair!" by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley.

Several men asked to keep the softback books, and I let them. One man wanted to give "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears" to his baby son. Another wanted to study the illustrations in Jane Kurtz's "Fire on the Mountain." He also did drawings, he said, which he kept under his mattress to prevent them from wilting in the prison humidity.

Another wanted to read "Paper Things," a novel by Jennifer Richard Jacobson about a homeless girl who cuts out pictures of people and objects from magazines to play with and imagine a better life. "That's exactly what we do here," he said.

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When I arrived home that night in January, I got the sad news that one of the great writers of young adult books, Ursula Le Guin, had died. She and I had once judged books together for PEN Awards and shared a lively correspondence. When I recall the power of those 16 men sharing their stories with one another that night, something Le Guin wrote comes to mind. "The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp," she wrote in an 1987 essay. "The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story." It was a living thing born of laughter and memory and wild things and a prison guard dozing in the corner.

Kerry Madden-Lunsford is the director of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham. She is the author of seven children's and young adult books. Her picture book "Ernestine's Milky Way" will be published next year.

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