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Nora Raleigh Baskin x KidsMates

Don't forget that there are people incarcerated and that our system puts people in prison who shouldn't be. Just don't forget—don't forget they’re there. Don't turn your head. Don't pretend you don't know. -- Nora Raleigh Baskin, 2024

Content warning – this post discusses suicide and other difficult topics.

Happy May! With the season in full bloom, it's the perfect time to celebrate stories of resilience and creative triumph.

This month, KidsMates is excited to feature Nora Raleigh Baskin, an esteemed author whose early life's challenges shaped her profound narrative voice. Born in Brooklyn and relocated to Manhattan at a tender age, Nora faced the tragic loss of her mother, a pivotal moment that later infused depth into her writings. After several family moves and school changes, she found solace and stability in writing during her formative years in New Paltz.

Nora's high school years were a blossoming period for her talents. Not only did she contribute to the school newspaper and participate in the drama club, but she also excelled in athletics, becoming captain of the girls' track team. Her creative prowess was recognized early when she won the Harriet Belcher Cunningham award for Creative Writing, a significant nod to her potential.

Following her passion, Nora majored in literature at SUNY Purchase, immersing herself in a broad array of writing and art criticism classes. Despite facing years of rejections, her determination never wavered. Nora's breakthrough came with her semi-autobiographical novel, What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, which opened the door to a successful career in writing novels for young readers.

Today, Nora has published numerous novels and essays, drawing on her experiences to explore themes of grief, identity, and resilience. Her work has not only earned her prestigious awards but has also made her a beacon of hope for many who find solace in her stories.

Please join me in welcoming the inspiring Nora Raleigh Baskin!

Ava: Hi Nora! Why don’t we start with you telling us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents?

Nora: To be honest, for most of my early life, I didn’t know much about the criminal justice system. It was in college that I really started to explore the area. At this point, I had written several middle-grade novels, and my college roommate invited me to a luncheon fundraiser for an organization called Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA), an organization that brings art and theater into the prisons in New York and New York City.

I didn’t really think much of it other than that it was a free lunch at a beautiful house. However, being there opened me up to a world I had completely missed for most of my life. Among the speakers were Katherina Vockins (RTA’s founder), a formerly incarcerated man, and an actresses who had worked in the prisons through RTA. 

As they spoke, I realized how little I really knew about incarceration, and I felt so ashamed. I had a vague idea about incarceration, but I didn’t know that there were millions of incarcerated people in the United States and that America’s incarceration rate is greater than any other country in the world. That was larger than I could ever imagine, and it was really a shock. Listening to the numbers hit me like lightning because I realized that if you have that many people incarcerated, there are tenfold children without their mothers.

Sitting at this luncheon, I came to realize how similar my life story was. I did not have a parent incarcerated, but my mother committed suicide when I was a little girl. Of course, my writer’s brain was working because I was really seeing all these little connections between my life and the life of a child of an incarcerated parent. 

The biggest one was probably the secrecy around incarceration. Nobody told me the truth about what happened to my mother, and when nobody tells you the truth as a kid, you can often start blaming yourself for what happened or making up stories. It was shameful, and people don’t talk about it publicly the same way. As a kid, I’d think, “How do I reconcile this thing my mother did that hurt me with loving her?” Many children of incarcerated parents go through the exact same thing – feeling like they are somehow responsible for their parent’s incarceration.  

In all the years I've worked in prisons, I've never had anyone say they were innocent. Everyone recognized and took responsibility for what they did. My mother did something very wrong. She made a mistake. And it hurt me. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to take responsibility. How was I supposed to reconcile that? And how would a child with a parent in prison reconcile that when they got old enough to deal with that sort of question and the accompanying self-blame. 

That’s when I realized I needed to write a book about this. Actually, if you look at my work, all my books have a story about the loss of a mother, and I felt that I could tell a really powerful story through the lens of incarceration. 

At the luncheon, I asked Katherine Vockins how to start writing this book. She told me about Hour Children in Queens, an organization that helps families during the hours before and after incarceration. So, I went to Queens. While there, I talked to the woman who runs the program, as well as formerly incarcerated people. From there, I just started writing, and Ruby came alive. 

Ava: Thank you so much for sharing your personal story. Parental incarceration really is a silent American epidemic, and it shares so much with many types of adversity. I believe that most people can understand what it means to lose a loved one, and that can happen in many ways. Your story helps provide another really important perspective to that. So, moving to our next question, what's the most important thing you've done recently to help children or families facing incarceration?

Nora: When I speak about Ruby on the Outside to schools, people are very surprised to hear about parental incarceration. I believe that teachers especially need to be educated. Given the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent, there’s going to be a child in your classroom facing this. There is going to be someone at the birthday party dealing with a parent in prison, and you won’t know. People really need to be open to hearing those stories and being aware and sensitive to them, because most children don’t talk about it. They aren’t going to walk around telling everybody, and they aren’t necessarily going to tell their teacher. So, if they open up, listen. 

I also did a lot of work pre-pandemic, before the prisons closed. I was working at Danbury Prison in Connecticut doing memoir writing with the mothers in a program called. Connecting Through Literacy: Incarcerated Parents, Their Children, and Caregivers, or CLICC. This program connects moms in prison to their children on the outside and gives them the opportunity to read the same book together. The child chooses the book, and Scholastic provides free copies to the mother and the child. This ends up giving them something easy to talk about the next time they see each other. 

Through this program, I was responsible for mentoring a child. I met him in the library and talked about the book with him. But, I found that my strength lay in going into the prisons. I would go once a week to meet with the mothers and do a creative writing exercise with them. They wrote really beautiful, heartbreaking stories. 

In hindsight, I think my book had more of an impact on mothers than their children. Many of the mothers who read my book told me that they did not realize the effect their incarceration had on their children or how difficult it was for their children to talk about how they felt. My book helped them to understand that. After the pandemic, I haven’t been able to get back into Danbury prison. It was really sad, actually. They shut down all the programs. I can’t imagine it. 

In Bedford Hills prison, where my book is set, they had a program where they took the children to visit their moms. Some hadn't seen their mothers in a year or more. The Osborne Association would pay for kids to visit, and I volunteered to be a chaperone for one of the trips. We flew from Kennedy Airport to Albion, stayed overnight in a hotel, and then went to a Mother’s Day event at the prison. 

That trip was one of the most incredible things. They had an adult for every kid because the prison wouldn't let the kids in without somebody – you know how difficult they make visiting. On the way over there, there was so much excitement. The kids were swimming in the pool at the hotel, and just all around happy to be there. They ended the next day having a beautiful experience with their mothers, and they loved it. 

But it was so bittersweet. There was a mom who wanted to take her baby and just change his diaper in the bathroom, and they wouldn't let her. That was heartbreaking. After the trip, when we took the kids back on the bus to get to the airport, they were no longer jovial, happy, and excited. It was so quiet on that bus. 

Ava: At KidsMates, we talk a lot about the importance of visiting and being able to see your parent. In most of the cases, kids really do want to have access to being able to talk to their parents and see their parents. And the “justice system” makes it so hard. Even when you send mail, there are so many rules and restrictions, and it’s the same in the visiting room – down to the way you dress. It's just really difficult for kids. It forces them to grow up a lot faster than they're really ready for. 

Nora: That’s very true. Also, some caretakers think children shouldn’t go to visit their mothers. But they have to maintain this relationship. It’s been shown that parents have a much better chance of staying out of prison if they have a relationship. It’s beneficial to both the child and the parent.

Anyway, I’ve seen some terrible things. At Bedford, when I went on visiting day with the kids, I saw a family going through security, and they had come all the way from New York City – took a bus, took a cab, etc – and they sent them away right there because of what the child was wearing flip flops or a short-sleeved shirt or a graphic tee. I couldn't believe it. So they make it so hard, and it's hard to understand why. 

Ava: That’s really hard. I know I’ve definitely been turned away from visiting before for the smallest things, and it’s not fun. Especially when you are a kid, it’s really easy to make a small mistake, and the cost is so high. It’s my hope that visiting will one day become easier, especially for children, to promote the parent-child connection that we know to be so important. So, moving to our next question, is there anything that people don't understand about your work or your projects or your book that you would like them to know?

Nora: Well, everything. Most people are just like I was before I learned about the carceral system. I didn’t know how difficult it was to visit someone in prison. I didn’t know how important it is to maintain that relationship. I really want teachers to understand the experience of having an incarcerated parent so that they can be sensitive and understanding because at some point, they will be teaching children of incarcerated parents. They need to understand what that child is going through. 

Also, I think a lot of people are open to hearing about incarceration. When I was on the way to Albion with the kids, most of the kids told their friends what was going on, and there were no adverse reactions. Some kids were actually very open about it, and I learned that it’s okay to have an incarcerated parent. In fact, it's better to talk about your situation than hide it. 

Through this process, I’ve learned a lot about the criminal “justice” system (well, the oxymoron that is), the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and the bail system. I put it in my book, but a lot of the crazy-sounding stories were straight out of newspapers. There were stories of women going to prison for incredibly long sentences because they couldn’t plea bargain, whereas the husband or the boyfriend who actually committed the crime could plea bargain and turn other people in. 

My brother was arrested a few years ago, and we had the money, so we went to a bail bondsman. But, we didn’t know you had to physically have the money before you went before the judge. It was just insane. I think now they are trying to reform that, but I want people to know what’s really going on. The system does a great job of deliberately hiding a lot of it. For a long time, I didn’t even know Sing Sing Prison was right near me. It’s hidden on purpose. 

Lastly, I want to talk about phones. When I first started engaging with the prison system for my advocacy work, I was shocked to learn about the astronomical telephone rates charged to incarcerated individuals. I had no idea families were facing phone bills of $300 to $400 every month just to keep in touch with their loved ones. These exorbitant costs fall on some of the most disenfranchised communities, adding a significant financial burden to their already challenging lives. This revelation hit me hard—it was deeply unjust that maintaining a vital emotional connection could be so costly.

Ava: That makes a lot of sense. It’s really hard to navigate the criminal justice system because there aren’t many resources available to children and families. I have just one follow-up question. Is there anything you would say that people didn’t understand about when you were writing your book that people just didn't understand about, maybe about Ruby’s character?

Nora: Well, when I wrote Ruby on the Outside, my editors were not jumping all over the idea of this book. I doubt that if I had to pitch it, they would have published it. But I had a contract for an open book, so I was able to write whatever I wanted and turn it in. To be honest, I’m sad that it doesn't sell more. My publishers didn’t really publicize it. They didn’t do anything with it. 

One of my reviews for Ruby on the Outside said that this was a good book to put into prison libraries. I hated that review. To me, this is a book that people on the outside need to read. That reviewer’s thinking was so pigeonholed in my opinion. If people think that this book is only for people who are experiencing this, it says a lot about our society. 

Ava: Thank you for sharing. Incarceration is not an individual issue; it is an American problem, and we need so much more education so that people can understand that. Moving to our next question, what tips would you give to children who are currently coping with adversity? 

Nora: I mean, there are the obvious ones of asking for help, being honest to talk, and seeking people who understand. But it's not that easy. I’d say to know that you aren’t alone. In this case, it’s really tough. 

I think much of my advice is also aimed at caregivers and parents. I’d tell them that the most important thing is not to hide it. That way kids can know that it’s not their fault. I think a lot of kids, certainly me, can tend to take a lot of blame and feel like it’s their responsibility. 

When my mother died, because nobody talked about it, I thought I killed my mother – I’m not kidding. I thought it was my fault. I thought I had caused her to do this. And if someone had talked to me at that young age, I don't think I would have grown up with such a terrible sense of myself. Truthfully, I think it's the adult’s responsibility to find a way to talk to the child. 

Ava: Transparency is one of the most important things in any relationship, and I’m so glad my parents were honest and upfront with me about my father’s incarceration. That really helped me to process. Given that you didn't have direct experience, how were you able to bring Ruby’s character to life in your book? 

Nora: You’re right. When I was writing the book, my emotional connection was there, but not necessarily the literal connection. I didn't have a mother in prison, so I gave the book to a group of children. Sidenote, I think it would be great if every child had a community of other kids with incarcerated parents to talk to. 

Anyway, this group of kids told me things about the book that were right and wrong, and they had a couple of additions to the book that I took very seriously. One of them was this. There's a moment in my story where my character is so embarrassed to have a friend come over and find out that her mom is incarcerated. She has a photo of her mom at a Mother’s Day event. As you know, the photographs look so fake because they put the parents in front of a photo backdrop, and they’re still wearing their prison uniforms. 

Anyway, in the book, when Ruby’s friends come over, she takes the photograph and puts it down flat to hide it. One boy in the group said to me, “ Hey! Oh my God. I would never put the picture of my mom flat down like that. I would never do that.” So I took it out of the book. They also mentioned to me the feeling of sitting in the waiting room and waiting for your mom to come in. You could sit there for hours, but every time you hear the door open, you’d look, just in case it was your mom coming in. So I put that in the book. 

Ava: That’s a great way to get feedback. When I read your book, I definitely felt the emotions of the experience coming through; you did a great job with that. So, on to our next question: Who or what has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration, and why? 

Nora: Well, it was definitely the luncheon that initiated this. From there, it was doing the volunteer work and seeing first hand the kids and the moms. Definitely, going to Albion with the kids shaped my mind a lot. Actually, the guards were very surprised that I was allowed in with a pencil and paper. They typically do not allow writers in the visiting room. 

I didn’t get to see the whole thing because I was just allowed into the visitor's room, not the actual prison. But, seeing visits firsthand – going through security and having my hand stamped, and dealing with all the bureaucracy – made me realize how difficult they make it for children to visit their parents. It’s sickening.

The worst story was when I was in Michigan, in a county prison. I got invited to speak because there was a prison librarian who brought speakers in. I couldn't believe the limited amount of books they were allowed to have in their library. Because it was a county prison, the women there were only there for a year. The kids used to be able to come and visit their moms, and at some point the prison decided to cut physical contact. 

They made the kids come to the prison and sit at a computer to talk to their moms. I was so horrified. Imagine traveling all the way to a prison to sit in front of a computer knowing your mother was a wall away, but you couldn’t touch her. Also, the prisons with plexiglass? These kinds of things just make it so much worse for people. 

If kids grow up feeling like the world is conspiring against them, they won’t trust the authorities. I don’t blame them. 

There was one other thing. When I went to Hour Children to meet with the moms, I talked to a mom named Kelly. Now, as a writer, I usually never ask this because these books are my stories, and I want to write them in my own way. But I asked her, “Kelly, is there anything you feel that I should or shouldn't or should put in my book about my character?” 

She told me “Please don't let your child be a troubled bad kid just because her parent is in prison.” It struck me because, to be honest, in my situation, I was a bad kid. I was in trouble all the time. I was shoplifting. I was suspended from school in sixth grade. I did act out a lot. 

When I thought about writing the book, I thought I’d have a character like that. But after speaking to her, that was a huge reality check. There's a huge misconception that because your parent is “bad” and has gotten in trouble, the kid is going to be bad and troubled. So shout out to Kelly because she had a huge influence on me. Actually, after talking to her, I completely changed the book. 

Ava: Awesome. I think many children of incarcerated parents are told that they will end up in prison like their parent, but that’s simply not true. Every person creates their own destiny, including children of incarcerated parents. For our closing question, I want to ask, if you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say? 

Nora: Well, I learned that in prison, people feel so isolated and cut off from the world, and they don’t know that anyone cares. Think about if you’re locked far away from the world with no support. In doing my reading and writing groups, I found that people were so glad that people didn’t just forget about them. So, remember that it doesn’t take much. You could write a letter, you could visit (if you’re allowed to), you could volunteer – there’s a lot of small things you could do. 

On a bigger level, you could become a lawyer advocate or belong to organizations like RTA and Hour Children. But on the littlest level, don't forget that there are people incarcerated and that our system puts people in prison who shouldn't be. Just don't forget—don't forget they’re there. Don't turn your head. Don't pretend you don't know.


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