Stardust: We Always Share the Same Sky July 23, 2019
In New Zealand, over 23,000 children have a parent who is incarcerated. The financial, social, and mental pressure of this can often be very difficult, especially with the stigma around incarceration. Stardust: We Always Share the Same Sky is a children’s book that aims to help children in this situation, and not let it deter them from achieving their dreams.
Lachlan Balfour of the Monday Wire spoke with Ivana Mlinac about the process behind the book, and what life is like for children with an incarcerated parent.
You can find the full interview here and the written transcript below. What follows is a write up from Angus Coker Grant.
Ivana Mlinac completed her Master’s in Criminology in 2016, but found herself wanting to do something further with her work. “I always wanted to do something a bit more practical with the research and not just let it sit there on the shelf. Stardust is the product of that.”
Drawing on research and interviews from the frontline which she gathered from 2014-2015, Mlinac had a wealth of information to draw from. These real stories inspired what would become Stardust, Mlinac adds “I also had the chance to analyse a whole bunch of data with stories straight from children and families and caregivers and foster parents.”
In her findings, Mlinac learnt that families don’t often share that a parent is incarcerated, with children facing serious social repercussions if they did. “Children who did disclose to their peers or to their teachers, they found that it was quite difficult or they would get that judgement or they would be bullied at school, for example.”
Children face numerous difficulties in dealing with an imprisoned parent, and have profound things to share about it. “a lot of the children experience grief and they say it’s just as bad as losing someone to death.”
When discussing current support systems for these children and families, Mlinac says there is always room for improvement, and has fortunately seen a change in time since her original study. “I think over the last few years we have raised that awareness around the topic. So we now have more community and governmental departments hopping on board and trying to help out where they can.”
These support systems have been effective too, but Mlinac says we need to focus on these positive aspects. ”our focus is just to start sharing more positive stories, or more success stories. Because not every child who has a parent in prison will end up in prison. There are some amazing success stories out there.”
Mlinac explains that with over 23,000 children with one or more incarcerated parents, there is plenty of variation in children’s situations. “If you were charged in Auckland that doesn’t always mean you end up in an Auckland prison. So then there’s that barrier and that cost for families. So it’s not always regular. It’s very case-by-case.”
Stardust: We Always Share the Same Sky is striking a chord with parents even with its short time since publication, saying: “The book’s been out for about 4 weeks now, and there’s been some great feedback from even parents in prison saying: “that’s how I relate to my daughter” or “to my son”.” and that she is: “receiving emails nearly every day, every second day. Just people thanking me and saying that they’re crying and then that makes me cry!”
When asked about a possible sequel or future children’s books, Mlinac laughs and says she’s hearing that question a lot, but her next idea is under wraps.
By Angus Coker Grant
You can learn more about Pillars here.
Lachlan Balfour: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Ivana Mlinac: I did my undergrad in sociology and criminology, and then i kind of got more interested in the criminology side of things. So I did my Masters in Criminology. And I researched parents in prison and how that impacts children in New Zealand. I always wanted to do something a bit more practical with the research and not just let it sit there on the shelf. Stardust is the product of that.
So it’s been a few years in the making. What was the process of writing the book?
Well, I always had the idea, I always knew that I wanted to write a book. But a lot of things do go into it. I think the easiest part is probably writing the story. Things like getting funding, getting a publisher is a whole other story.
I suppose you probably would have interviewed people during your Master’s who were going through or had gone through having a parent in prison. Did that inform a lot of the themes in the book? What’s it like having that perspective?
Yeah, most definitely. It was very hard to listen to sometimes. I mainly interviewed service providers. So both government and NGOs who work frontline with the children and families. But then I also had the chance to analyse a whole bunch of data with stories straight from children and families and caregivers and foster parents and things like that. So a lot went into the research and into the book. Really it’s thanks to my participants.
The book looks at other people and especially other children’s perception of the little girl and her mother. How difficult is it for children whose parents are incarcerated not just not having a parent, but also having people judging?
There’s a range of impacts, as you know. Psychological, emotional, mental health wellbeing, financial even. I think it’s very tricky to answer that question because a lot of the families they either choose to disclose it or not disclose it. A lot of the families that I had contact with they choose more often not to disclose that the other parent's gone to prison just because of that shaming and that stereotype that children then have to carry around with them. Children who did disclose to their peers or to their teachers, they found that it was quite difficult or they would get that judgement or they would be bullied at school, for example. I suppose it’s just about raising more awareness around the topic and that it exists, it happens in New Zealand, and there are children going through it.
Is there much support for these kids who have an incarcerated parent?
I think it could be better, we can always do more. There is a great NGO called Pillars who work directly with children and families. Back when I did my study across 2014-2015, it was a subject that wasn’t spoken about a lot. I think over the last few years we have raised that awareness around the topic. So we now have more community and governmental departments hopping on board and trying to help out where they can.
I suppose this book is a great way to raise awareness, because I guess it’s not really something-
It’s not your typical children’s book?
Yeah! For kids reading this book, what would you like for them to get from it?
Really just the sense of a little bit of hope, I suppose. There’s a focus on goal-setting and trying to get children thinking about their futures and try and mould them the way that want them. Just really about giving them that kind of momentum to you know, start thinking about their dreams and goals and aspirations. Because I think a lot of the time in society - last week I heard in the news ‘children with a parent in prison are nine times more likely to be in prison themselves’ and it’s something that’s just repeated over and over and over again. I just wanted to change the conversation a little bit around how we talk about the children and how we talk to the children. Because can you imagine having a parent in prison and sitting in the lounge and hearing that on the news. How would that make you feel? So I suppose our focus is just to start sharing more positive stories, or more success stories. Because not every child who has a parent in prison will end up in prison. There are some amazing success stories out there. If we can just get that snowball going, and getting children to speak up about what they’ve been through and how they’re doing today.
The night sky - it’s a big theme in the book. NO matter where you are you share the same sky. Where did you get this idea from?
It took quite a long time to find something. I kept thinking: what is there that we all share? And then I kinda clicked. It’s the sky. You’ve heard that saying - I don't know if you’ve said it to anyone before - but ‘we can all see the same moon’ for example. That's where I made that connection. The book’s been out for about 4 weeks now, and there’s been some great feedback from even parents in prison saying: “that’s how I relate to my daughter” or “to my son”.
What is the experience like? Do children get to have much contact with parents who are incarcerated or is just very irregular?
It’s very case-by-case. It really depends on the offence that the parent has committed to start off with. And then it depends where that parent is located. If you were charged in Auckland that doesn’t always mean you end up in an Auckland prison. So then there’s that barrier and that cost for families. So it’s not always regular. It’s very case-by-case.
Maybe some children might feel abandoned, almost? Is that a common kind of thing?
Most definitely. Again, it’s really up to the families, depending on the child’s age whether they disclose where the parent is. Some choose not to, because they think it’s better that the child doesn’t always know everything. For those who do know, they don’t necessarily know what happened. It’s quite a shock, and a lot of the children experience grief and they say it’s just as bad as losing someone to death. So it’s pretty extreme.
You spoke a bit before about the reception to the book, can you sort of talk a bit more about it? How’s it been?
Oh it’s been great! It’s been so heartwarming. Receiving emails nearly every day, every second day. Just people thanking me and saying that they’re crying and then that makes me cry! They think it’s fantastic. It’s not your typical children’s book so I think they’re very thankful that someone’s thought about their children and what they go through and made something that they can relate to - I think that’s the biggest thing. So that’s been great. Everyone’s been asking me when the next book is coming out.
The illustrations also, they’re great. So, do you write the book and the illustrator takes from that or do you work together? What’s the process behind that?
I had a little trouble writing the story at the start. Because I wanted to write something realistic and positive, which is sometimes hard to do. I actually worked with a friend. Me and Porsche went to high school together. We’re always kind of on the same wavelength. We really didn’t know what we were doing at the start. I didn’t know how to publish a children’s book. She didn’t really know how to be an illustrator. She’s an amazing artist, but she’s never illustrated. So I always had a little bit of vision there, but I could never bring it to surface. I really just let her take it into her own hands and she did amazing. I could have never done that.
We’ve been passing the book around the newsroom, and everyone sort of notices the activities at the back. So you’ve got ‘how do you feel’, and you’ve got ‘making your own stardust jar’. Where did the idea for that come from?
That was really just an added bonus because I always knew this book was going to go to children and families and caregivers but also to service providers, like social workers, corrections officers, anyone working in that kind of professional field. I really wanted the book to be practical, where you can just sit down if you’re in that profession or if you’re not - you could be a grandma, mum or dad at home - and just work through some of the activities and start talking a little bit about their feelings that they are feeling and it’s safe to talk about it with someone that they trust. But also there’s a focus on goal-setting.
You’ve just published this, but have you got any other ideas?
Yeah, I’ve been asked that question so many times. Yes, but it’s a little bit under the wraps at the moment.