In books, we can find kinship, solidarity and the expression of emotions we may hesitate to share with other people. Author Sara Greenwood draws on personal experience in My Brother Is Away, a compassionate depiction of a girl working through the complex emotions she feels about her brother, who is in prison.
In straightforward and descriptive first-person narration, the girl remembers the fun times she shared with her brother, which now “feel like a faraway dream,” and deals with questions and jibes from her peers. Greenwood perfectly captures the girl’s open, expressive thoughts, but many concrete details are left vague, especially those involving the brother’s conviction. Instead, the author delves deeper into the girl’s conflicting feelings: “Why did my brother do that awful thing?” the girl wonders. “I want to shout at him, “This is all your fault!”” Greenwood nimbly avoids crafting a syrupy panacea while validating the girl’s recollections of happy, loving memories of her brother.
Artist Luisa Uribe’s illustrations reflect the girl’s fluid emotions with exceptional skill, understanding and sensitivity. Scenes set in the present use subdued, natural hues—especially grays, blues and browns—to depict falling leaves and an autumnal chill that convey how deeply the girl misses her brother as she navigates daily life without him. In contrast, flashbacks are bright and cheery, with an occasionally fantastical feel.
In one scene, the girl storms through her house in fury and Uribe tilts the room around her. The floor slopes subtly upward across the spread, while doors and art on the wall slant to the right, off-kilter. Toward the end of the book, when the girl nervously waits to see her brother in prison, Uribe places her in the center of an otherwise white, empty page; on the opposite page is the closed door her brother will walk through. Throughout, Uribe incorporates small, everyday details—a laundry hamper with a lid slightly ajar in the brother’s empty bedroom, the girl’s red eyeglasses and matching red sneakers—which give a sense of softness and safety.
In an author’s note, Greenwood professes her hope that “this book feels like a friend” to children with incarcerated loved ones. “I want you to know you aren’t alone,” she writes. My Brother Is Away is not a practical guidebook for families with an incarcerated family member, nor does it explain the details of unlawful acts, the justice system or imprisonment and release. It simply reminds readers that, for every person who is incarcerated, there is also a family and a community whose lives have also been changed—and it reaches out with comfort and acceptance to the littlest ones who are witnessing and living those stories.