In the new children’s book “Demetri Makes a Memory Quilt,” the main character, a young, school-age boy is agitated. Demetri rifles through his mailbox, but there is no sign of a long-awaited letter from his mother.
Demitri’s mom is in prison, and her messages are a precious lifeline as he handles growing up without her.
Over the course of 32 pages, first-time children’s book author Renée Menart describes how Demetri handles the often-overwhelming tangle of his emotions, with the help of caring family members and a supportive teacher. First, his grandmother helps him gather pieces of fabric that remind him of memorable moments with his mom to be stitched into a quilt — pieces of a polka dot towel represents a memory of a fun outing at the beach, where he searched for seashells and built sandcastles with his mom and cousin. Seeing his difficulty staying focused in class, Demetri’s school teacher Mr. Howard helps him draw a picture to send to his mom.
In time, the small boy is able to set aside his constant worry over receiving his mother’s letters, images revealed in expressive, earth-toned drawings by up-and-coming illustrator Candice Bradley.
Menart — a criminal justice advocate who most recently worked with the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice — said “Demetri Makes a Memory Quilt” aims to serve as a resource for the millions of children with incarcerated parents who face uncertainty, stigma and longing. In an interview, she said caregivers can read the book to children and use it to broach difficult subjects: Demetri can be an example to others. He gets through painful moments by drawing or acting silly with his cousin.
“I hope that the book can be a source of healing by helping to open up conversations within families or be a story that children can see themselves reflected in,” Menart said.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, about 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, which comes out to about 1 in every 28 kids. Those figures are 1 in 9 for Black children, six times the rate for their white peers.
A 2021 study in the journal Child Development Perspectives found that the negative impacts of parental incarceration increase as children grow older. They are far more likely than their peers to struggle in school and face behavioral and other health challenges. Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these children have experienced further hardships, with in-person prison visits limited or suspended completely, making contact between parents and children even harder to maintain.
Menart drew on the stories she encountered in her justice advocacy work to write her children’s book. Over the past two years, she developed the book’s themes, centering on Demetri and his network of supporters, with a group of five parents living at Cameo House in San Francisco. The re-entry and alternative sentencing program serves formerly incarcerated women and their children.
Proceeds from the book’s sale will benefit the nonprofit organization that runs the housing program, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and other organizations that serve families impacted by incarceration.
The women who contributed to the story were compensated for their time, Menart said, and their perspectives shaped “Demetri Makes a Memory Quilt.” These formerly incarcerated parents wanted to help create a resource that would have helped their children navigate periods of loss, loneliness and frustration.
“The direction from the women and mothers of Cameo House was that this book really needs to be about the day-to-day of how a child heals in the months or years when their parent isn’t in their immediate life,” Menart said.
Rebecca Jackson, director of the Cameo House, described Menart’s book as a valuable tool for families struggling with sudden separation, feelings often accompanied by a sense of shame. She said her own daughters were 8 and 9 years old when she was incarcerated. And, like Demetri, they were left with few answers about why their mother was taken from them.
“Children cannot and should not be expected to understand why a parent has been incarcerated,” Jackson said. “For all children, it is about what’s missing. There’s always a sense of abandonment.”
While it’s important for children of incarcerated parents to hear Demetri’s story, Jackson said the themes of the book may be even more important for the adults in their lives to digest. For many families, stigma about incarceration can prevent kids from getting the support they need to stay connected to their parents, Jackson said, and caregivers may avoid talking about uncomfortable subjects or feel the need to keep the whereabouts of an incarcerated mother or father a secret.
The loving depictions of Demetri’s grandmother, aunt and teacher in “Demetri Makes a Memory Quilt” provide a model of loving support.
“The book is a medium where we can start to have these really hard conversations,” Jackson said. “It isn’t easy, but it’s important because in the deepest core of this, love is the message.”