The book is about a little girl, unnamed, who is trying to deal with her conflicting feelings about herself and her older brother, who is incarcerated.
On the first page, she’s sitting on a stoop at home, petting her cat and informing the reader that her brother doesn’t live at home. He’s far away.
She loves her brother, but she’s lonely without him. When a classmate says her brother was in the news and that he did something bad, the little girl becomes angry and ashamed. Her parents soothe her. They promise they’ll see him soon.
In the meantime, the little girl tries to cheer herself up by remembering the fun she and her brother had together. How she would try to reach the stars when he carried her on his shoulders in the dark.
How they would snuggle, “cozy as a caterpillar in her cocoon,” when he read books to her. How he helped her learn to fly a kite.
The little girl and her parents take a long road trip to visit her brother. In the prison’s visitors lounge she alertly notices her brother isn’t the only one who is away from family.
The book concludes with the girl sensing the depth of his feelings for her: “My brother’s not home but his love hasn’t changed.”
The core of “My Brother Is Away” did not spring from Greenwood’s imagination. Rather, it was based on the author’s own experience. She was in first grade when her brother was arrested. He was released from prison when she was in the eighth grade.
Her idea for writing the book was sparked in 2017 when Greenwood met Nora Raleigh Baskin at a teachers’ conference after reading Baskin’s “Ruby on the Outside,” a middle-grade novel about a girl who was incarcerated. Greenwood told Baskin how meaningful the book was for her.
“She asked if I thought about writing a picture book on the subject. I said I had not. From there, I sat down to work on it a few months later,” Greenwood said. “It was, I think, the fastest book I had ever written. I think it took me a week and a half. And I think it was so quick because unbeknownst to me I had been writing it my whole life.”
As with the little girl in the book, Greenwood said her feelings as a child were often in flux. “I didn’t have the distance and maturity as an adult to name those feelings. This book in a sense was a powerful experience to write,” she said.
Greenwood said her own parents tried to make the best out of a sad situation. That included thinking of their prison visits as “just family time in a completely different place.”
And her parents spoke to Sara’s teachers, explaining about this difficulty at home. They thought that information would benefit teachers so they’d be aware of any behavioral changes they may see in Sara.
Greenwood said her brother was 19 when he was arrested. That got the author thinking about her own son, who is now 19. “It’s hard for me to fathom my own child in a situation at that age,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be very open with my kids, that they could come to me with anything. Kids sometimes make stupid mistakes that have consequences. I want them to know that they are always accepted and loved.”
In a starred review, Booklist said, “This empathetic book addresses a topic that’s relevant to a significant number of children yet rarely covered in children’s books.” For that same reason, Greenwood said, her mother was pleased she had written the book.
A Spanish language edition is also available. The book’s target audience is ages 4-8.
Greenwood believes the book could be used as a classroom read-aloud, as a one-on-one activity with teacher and pupil, or for a child to discover the book on his/her own.
The author said she and her brother had not been in touch for some years, though they have spoken by phone in recent months. “I would say that the most meaningful thing for me was to hear him say that he loves me,” she recounted.
Greenwood dedicated the book to “the child I was and the child you are – hope, healing, love, light.”
Luisa Uribe’s illustrations enhance the tone of the book. Uribe creates appropriately somber moods through the use of subdued colors, whether in the autumnal shades of jackets, the pale blue of the sky and yellow-streaked clouds, the muted greens of a landscape or the battleship gray of the exterior prison walls.