Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

The Women’s Storybook Project of Texas passed out small packs of tissues as table favors at its latest fundraiser, because there’s seldom a dry eye in the house when the organization describes how it fosters family reading across time, distance, and incarceration. The nonprofit serves children whose mothers are in prison by sending books to the kids, along with recordings of their mothers reading them aloud. 

The effort, fueled by a small staff and a corps of volunteers, strengthens the mother-child connection and motivates moms to stay out of prison after their release. I spoke with Jill Gonzalez, executive director of Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, about how it works, why it’s a difference-maker for kids, families, and society—and why we should all treasure the chance to read to kids.

Maya Smart: Hi Jill, thanks so much for being with me today. I'm so excited to chat about Women's Storybook Project, an organization that's near and dear to my heart from the years I spent in Austin, when I had the opportunity to meet you and also to attend some of your fundraising events. I just wanted to start by talking about how important reading aloud with children, and to children, is for all families. I know sometimes, among my readership, parents can feel like it's a chore, they get tired at the end of a long day and don't really appreciate it for the wonderful opportunity that it is to connect, spend time, nurture relationships, and make memories. I know that is not the case with the women who participate in your program. They're not taking the opportunity to read to children for granted. Can you tell us a bit about the organization and the women it serves?

Jill Gonzalez:

Sure. Thank you. I’m really happy to be here today. At the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, we work for the children of incarcerated mothers. We want to be able to connect them to their mothers through the power of literature, because Texas is a really big state and it’s hard to visit. If your mom is incarcerated, you don’t get to talk to her often or visit her often. 

It’s imperative that we keep families connected. The research shows that Mom’s voice is as strong as an embrace and that families who stay connected, actually, the moms have a better chance of staying out of prison when they leave.

So, we have volunteers who go to prisons every month, and moms apply for our program. If they have 60 days’ good behavior, children between the ages of 0 and 14, and permission to contact them, then they’re offered the program. Every month they come in, we talk about reading and the importance of reading, and then they choose a book for each child. 

Once they’ve chosen the book, they have reading time, and we record them on a little digital recorder. When they’re done, they can write a message of love in the book, and they can also give it on the recording. We send those books and the recording to the child every month.

Maya Smart: I love what you said about emphasizing that the program is for children, because the name of the organization obviously has women in it, and you're thinking about the mothers who are incarcerated, but the children, of course, have committed no crime, yet they're deprived of this critical relationship with their mothers. Can you talk about the age range that you serve and the importance of that connection, whether a child is 2 or 12?

Jill Gonzalez:

Sure. There are some mothers who even give birth while they’re in prison. So, we’re reading to babies very young. From 0, 2 months, 6 months, 9 months, all the way until 14. We used to serve up to age 12 and the mothers requested, “please let us keep reading, because our children really need us right now.” So now we go through 14. 

And I can’t overemphasize the importance of Mom’s voice and the ability to hear a favorite story, whether it’s Mom’s favorite or the child’s favorite. Because we hear all the time from moms, “I’ve never gotten to read to my child.” Maybe they weren’t able to before they were incarcerated. Or “I haven’t read to my child in five years.”

Mom records four stories, one each time. But the child can listen to that book a hundred times. So, hearing Mom is very emotional, but it’s a message of love. It’s someone saying “I love you” through a book. 

And that’s something that I know parents get tired, and I know they memorize the books and the kids tell them when they’ve skipped a page, but it’s such a gift to be able to share books with your children, because every book makes a new memory, and it’s natural for them to get stuck on one.

Maya Smart: Talk a bit also about the caregivers, the people who are living day in and day out with the child whose parent is incarcerated. Have you heard from them about the power of the program, and do you know if it influences the frequency or interest in reading among the caregivers?

Jill Gonzalez:

We have heard from caregivers. Caregivers can be aunts and uncles, grandparents, foster parents, whoever happens to have been chosen to be the caregiver. This often gives the caregiver a little break. 

The caregiver hopefully is reading to that child every night. And, even if they’re not able to, when Mom sends a book and a tape, or a book and a recording, it’s a chance for the child to hear a story that they love or that Mom loves, and a chance for the [grandparent] caregiver to also hear their sons or—sorry, their daughter’s voice. That can change relationships, because there’s been a lot of hurt when someone has been incarcerated. Sometimes those relationships are damaged. 

We’ve gotten emails and letters from caregivers that say, “It really touched my heart when my daughter recorded for my grandkids, because I didn’t think she cared. Yes, we talk to her, but this really shows she cares. That helped us to start calling her or helped us to start visiting.” It can change relationships, knowing that someone is trying to do something good for their family.

Maya Smart: The moms have to go through a process. You touched on it a bit earlier, but could you explain more about how the moms sign up for the program—what they have to do?

Jill Gonzalez:

Sure. So moms, they have an application and they fill out the application. On the application, they have to state that they’ve had 90 days case-free, or good behavior.

Then we check the children, because Mom may have children from, you know, 7 to 18, but she’s not able to read to the 18-year-old, but she’ll read to the 7 and 9-year-old. So, we check the ages of the children, and then we’re very careful to make sure that there’s no CPS cases involved, that none of the children have been a victim, because we don’t want to cause any trauma to a child that’s already been through trauma. So, it is a program that moms have to work to get into.

Maya Smart: Can you talk about the benefits of the program? You've talked about the benefits for the child, for the mom, for the caregivers. But if we take a step back and look bigger-picture at all of society, how does maintaining that mother-child relationship affect recidivism and other things?

Jill Gonzalez:

When you have the ability to affect the relationship between a mother and a child, it’s hugely important that you take it. Whether it’s a field trip to see parents, which some other nonprofits do, or the opportunity to bond with books. Whatever gives you a chance to make that relationship stronger and better is going to serve the whole world. 

We know that in mass incarceration, many times the offenses are trauma-related or addiction-related. The crimes that women have been accused of are not against their children. There are many views on the incarceration of so many women, but it’s really paramount that we try and help the women who are already incarcerated stay in contact with their families and keep those relationships strong. 

How better to do that [than] through a book? Because sometimes when you’re talking to a child, and you know this, [it’s like] “Hi, how was your day?” “Fine.” [laughs] There’s nothing to talk about.

Well, when you have a book, it gives you something to talk about. We have a large instance of when Mom comes the first time, she often picks a nostalgic book, something that she’s already read to the kids, whether it be Goodnight Moon or Skippyjon Jones, or Full, Full, Full of Love. She’s already read the book to the child, but she’ll send it and read it again to reestablish that connection. 

And the kids respond and they say, “Hey Mom, it was really great, I loved the book. Do they have any Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Or do they have any Junie B. Jones?” Or just things that the child is interested. But that’s just as important, because the child is being heard, and that’s super important, because I think children of incarceration are generally not heard.

Maya Smart: Can you talk about some of the books that are popular? You mentioned nostalgic titles. I think the title of one book was Invisible String when you did a fundraiser. Can you describe that book and the special place that it has for families?

Jill Gonzalez:

There are quite a few books now that are about the mom-child connection. Even back to Runaway Bunny, was a classic about kids. My nephew’s favorite was I Love You Stinky Face. It was, “I’ll always love you no matter what, even if you have a stinky face or even if you’re a monster.” 

Our book—The Invisible String is our signature book. It’s by Patrice Karst. Patrice is an author who lives in California, and she wrote this book for her son. The story is, essentially, there are two children who wake up during a storm and they go out to their mother, and they say they’re scared. She says, “Well, you don’t ever have to be scared, because we’re always connected.” 

And she explains to them—and she takes her fingers and shows them the invisible string—that “you and I are always connected, because the invisible string is love.” And she makes the heart, and it’s beautiful. They start asking questions, “Well, does it go with me when I go to school, and does it go with me when I’m visiting someone else? And can it reach grandma?” 

It’s a lovely, lovely book about connection and really makes the point for moms that “it doesn’t matter where I am, doesn’t matter where you are, we’re still connected by love.”

Maya Smart: Another book that I know has been mentioned at a fundraiser of yours is Prison Baby. So that one is a memoir. Tell us a bit about [the author] and her story.

Jill Gonzalez:

Sure. We were very privileged this year to have Deborah Jiang-Stein, from Minneapolis, come and speak at our luncheon. Deborah was born in prison, and she has written a memoir called Prison Baby and explains her journey. 

She actually said at the luncheon, she spent the first year in her mom’s cell, and some people think that’s tragic, but she thought, “Well, what a wonderful gift, because I had a full year of bonding and my mom telling me stories and reading me books.” 

Then, of course, she couldn’t stay and she was adopted out. She didn’t know she was adopted until her preteen years. Then she found paperwork that explained this to her, and that caused a lot of trauma. Because she knew she was different from the other kids, but she didn’t know why. Then, when she found out, she felt ashamed, and she wasn’t vocal enough to talk to anybody about it. So that caused her own trauma. 

As she realized, she said she had a family that was very supportive with books and the arts, but she wasn’t ready for the care that they wanted to give her. She went through high school and college exploration and really came to a turning point in her life, when she decided she wanted to be positive and do something positive with her life. 

So she started The unPrison Project, and she speaks to incarcerated women about hope. That there’s always hope, and there’s always another chance. You’re not a failure just because you have a sentence, and you are not your sentence. It was very powerful. The book is very powerful, but it was very powerful to hear her speak in person, because she says, “I am a story of hope, I’m also a story of devastation, but the more important story is the story of hope.”

Maya Smart: Can you tell viewers how they can support your work, how they can participate in spreading that message of hope to children and to families and to mothers?

Jill Gonzalez:

The best way you can support literacy is to read to your children even when you’re tired, even when you’ve had a bad day. Take the five minutes. Maybe you have to say, “No, we’re not reading three books tonight, it’s just one,” but make sure you read one. 

And keep it up, don’t stop when they’re seven, don’t stop when they start reading, because they can understand so much more than they can read. You can read your seven-year-old a book on a fourth-grade level, and they’ll love it, because they’re listening and not reading. 

How you can support Women’s Storybook Project—we serve women in Texas because we are in Texas, but the children are all over the country and sometimes all over the world. Last year we served, I believe, 110 counties in Texas and 18 different states. 

We take financial donations. We love to have volunteers sign up. If you’re available in Texas, that’s great. And if you’re not, we have remote opportunities for volunteers, whether that be in database management or marketing and communications or curriculum development. 

We’d love to have you get involved, because the whole process of connecting children and families through books to their parents is just so life-giving, and there’s nothing bad about it.

Maya Smart: Well, thank you so much for your time, Jill, it was great to connect.

Jill Gonzalez:

Thank you. Thank you so much, have a great day.