Kimberly Ballou’s When Daronte’s Father Went to Prison is a story told from the point-of-view of Daronte Williams, a young African American boy, who has the perfect life at the beginning of the story. Things quickly unravel and Ballou follows Daronte through the spiral, movingly representing his inner turmoil as he is forced to deal with the consequences of his father’s incarceration.
Readers are introduced to ten-year-old Daronte and his upper-middle-class African American family in the first chapter, “A Loving Family.” Daronte lives a life of luxury with satin sheets, a closet full of shoes, and tons of fancy family vacations. When Daronte’s rude to his less well-off cousins, his father gently but firmly reprimands him. Ballou does a great job of setting up everything Daronte and his family have, most significantly each other.
The second chapter, “Raid!!,” opens with another family scene. Daronte is home from school sick and his mother takes care of him. Domestic harmony is suddenly and violently interrupted by a police raid. In Daronte’s mind the heavily armored police officers are “mutants” and the violence and chaos they bring to his home are completely unreal to him. His father is arrested. He is separated from his mother and put in the back of a police car. When he can reenter his home with his mother and sister it is a mess.
The third chapter, “Bad News,” explores the affects the raid has on Daronte. He has constant bad dreams and feels like his father’s arrest is his fault. That is, until the school bully targets him and shares the news that Daronte’s father was arrested for selling drugs with the entire school.
“A Change is Coming,” chapter four, begins by focusing on Daronte’s deteriorating school performance. His family and life are changing rapidly, and he can’t concentrate on school work. He also starts getting in trouble. The “change” that comes takes Daronte further from the familiar. His mother cannot afford their lavish lifestyle, including their large home. She will need to go to work and the family must move to a small apartment in the city.
Chapter five, “A New Home,” further explores all the changes occurring. Daronte moves into his new home, and the family goes shopping at a thrift store. This is quite different from the satin sheets, perfectly manicured lawn, and closet full of shoes that Daronte experienced for the first ten-years of his life.
“School Days,” chapter six, introduces even more changes. Daronte enters a new school, quite different from the private school he previously attended. His mother now works outside of the home and he must stay with a nosey neighbor when he gets home. Even more, he has complex feelings about his father and is not sure how to express them.
Chapter seven, “A Different Perspective,” shows Daronte beginning to acclimate to his new normal. He even makes a friend, Cameron, who has lived in Daronte’s new neighborhood his whole life. He learns that Cameron’s father is incarcerated like his own, which provides him with a new perspective on his situation. It is from Cameron that Daronte learns that it is possible to visit his father in prison.
Cameron lives with his grandmother, and his older brother lives with an uncle. The introduction of a new character allows Ballou to further explore the consequences of adult incarceration on families, especially children.
In chapter eight, “The Talk,” Daronte, his mother, and his sister all go to visit his father at the prison. Ballou describes the metal detectors, aggressive guards, and no touch rules. In front of his father, Daronte can begin articulating and working through his emotions, which range from anger and fear to love and sadness.
The final chapter, “Going Home,” ties everything together, providing a clear moral for young readers: selling drugs may seem like a path to providing family security, but the stakes are too high.
2.7 million children in the US have an incarcerated parent. Many of the challenges that families with an incarcerated parent experience, including poverty, are explored in When Daronte’s Father Went to Prison.
Ballou creates a character many children will be able to identify with, feeling less alone in their own experiences; experiences that are largely absent from representation in children’s culture.
This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough. Ballou does a wonderful job allowing her readers to confront a fictionalized reality that may or may not mirror their own, but needs to be acknowledged. I admired Daronte’s simultaneous vulnerability and strength as well as the way Ballou captures the feel and texture of neighborhoods with so few words.
Kimberly Ballou’s When Daronte’s Father Went to Prison is an important book to make available to children. It belongs in all school libraries and is most appropriate for middle-grade readers between eight and twelve-years-old. Ballou’s language is accessible, as is the structure of the text. The short chapters encourage readers to pause and process the information, allowing room for discussion.