Muralist and children’s book creator Katie Yamasaki has just released Dad Bakes this fall, a stunning picture book that tells the story of a formerly incarcerated man who bakes in his community and with his daughter. As we follow Dad throughout the day, we watch him walk to work while the moon is still up. Working side by side with other smiling and tattooed bakers, Dad scoops, kneads, and rolls. After the dough and sun rise, he comes home to his daughter. They play, bake, wait, rest and enjoy what they’ve made together.

As someone whose family has been impacted by incarceration, I was moved by the book’s intimate story of reentry, a process that is often expected to just happen but isn’t as often talked about or seen. Dad Bakes shows us the importance of community support as we watch Dad work alongside his fellow bakers at Rise Up! Bakery all morning and spend the rest of the day hanging out with and caring for his daughter. And she cares for him too: the daughter, the book’s narrator, gives him time to rest after work and greets him with a glass of juice when he wakes. As readers, we get a peek into a community and family that cherishes one another while experiencing time a little differently.

Dad Bakes is a special book that opens up important conversations around incarceration and care across generations. I was lucky enough to get to chat with author Katie Yamasaki about Dad Bakes, art as healing, abolition and more.

Thaomi Michelle Dinh: Something incredible you’re doing is raising funds to send free copies of your book to the communities you’re writing for. You mentioned that it’s important for you to get Dad Bakes into the hands of people who are already experts in the field. Could you say a little more about that?

Katie Yamasaki: I think I was always kind of turned off from being an artist as I was growing up because I didn’t feel like the art world was a place that I wanted to participate in. I wasn’t interested in making art just for people who go to art galleries. But in college, I had an internship with Ed Young, a children’s book illustrator who moved from China to America, and he shared a lot of Chinese folktales and stories that he had experienced as a child. I saw how the stories got to kids and teachers, and as someone who grew up around a lot of teachers, I started thinking about kids and educators as my first favorite audience. Teachers know how to communicate stories to children, and children experience and receive stories in totally different ways.

As a muralist, I make murals in community with people who have had really different life experiences than I’ve had. I would never pretend to be the expert in their story. Whether I’m working with an indigenous group, a group of incarcerated people, or a group of teenagers in the inner city, their platform for communication is small and limited in a lot of ways because they’re not historically listened to. I have access and a platform to tell their story, and the only real way to tell it is creating in total collaboration and community with the people who actually have the lived experiences.

Dinh: You’re writing for and with, not just about.

Yamasaki: Yeah. With any of the murals or books I create, I want the stories to come from people who have direct experience so it’s not coming from nowhere, and I know that these are stories that they want to have told. If I’m going to tell a story about reentry for a woman who’s formerly incarcerated, I’m not going to imagine what that’s like. I’ll sit in community with a large group of women for a long time and build a storytelling process so it’s more of an exchange rather than me just taking their story. Through storytelling and gathering, there’s a kind of inherent therapeutic process. They’re surrounded, with the exception of me, by a bunch of people who share the same lived experience and there’s a lot of support. I often just take a step back. The artwork is just a vehicle to get the story out.

On any given day, there are more than five million kids who have experienced a parent being incarcerated, and as far as I know, there are no children’s books on reentry. There’s a stigma around being an incarcerated parent and having an incarcerated parent. When parents come back to their community, there’s an experience of reconnecting with their child, but there aren’t stories that reflect a loving portrayal of that relationship. There’s a lot of shame, stigma, and judgement for parents and kids. But the truth is, one of the best ways to lower rates of recidivism is to strengthen that bond between parent and child because it helps the healing process. But people are met instead with shame, lack of mental health support, lack of addiction counseling or professional job and education support. So any one book or any one mural is just a small piece of a very big puzzle of helping people get treated like human beings.

Dinh: In the process of reentry, there’s so much silence alongside shame. Your work is calling attention to things not easily seen, like community support and healing across generations. This all requires so much work, but that’s never given the spotlight. I know in my family, too, there was a lot of silence when our close family member was incarcerated. Everyone was so supportive when it was all happening, but afterwards, no one talked about it, and that silence and shame felt so loud.

Yamasaki: Yeah. A lot of people I know who’ve experienced incarceration, it’s as if that experience becomes the single defining aspect of their personhood. As if, once you’re incarcerated, you can’t be a cat lover, a baker, an artist, a poet, or whatever—you’re just seen as a criminal. It’s so limiting, which is why I didn’t put anything about his justice narrative until the end. I wanted to give the reader, and especially the adult reader, the chance to get to know this character as all of these other things: loving dad, music lover, hard worker, tattoo lover. Our society is so attached to the binary—good and bad—that people don’t get a chance to just have a more human experience. I think kids inherently understand the range more.

There’s something to be said about teaching kids about mass incarceration young: the idea that some people get punished for who they are, not what they’ve done. You look at all of these guys in their young twenties who are incarcerated for a ridiculous reason, like supposedly stealing a backpack or selling weed or something like that, while their white counterparts are just not. What I hope kids will take away from this, and maybe educators and parents who don’t have much to do with the criminal justice system, is that people are more than the worst thing that’s happened in their life. And whether or not we know anyone involved in the justice system, We all know what it’s like to really miss somebody. And I think it is just good to think about how we wait; the book has a lot to do with time and waiting and how we can do that in a meaningful, connective way.

I did this project, one time with this group of teenage boys who had been incarcerated in the Philadelphia area, and we did this word bubble activity. In one bubble, they wrote in how they see themselves, and in the other word bubble, how other people see them. One bubble had words like, smart, responsible, big brother, loving, good DJ, basketball player, loving grandson, all these positive things. The other one said, dumb, ugly, scary, not gonna be anything, drug dealer, all this stuff. The disparity of how we see each other and how we’re seen just seemed so violent, and it’s so dangerous. For these boys, statistically, it’s dangerous how the world experiences them. And so, I feel like any book or any piece of media that can help give people more of a chance to see each other clearly is a piece in the puzzle.

Dinh: Yes. It’s kind of an opportunity to see each other and see themselves too.

Yamasaki: Growing up, and I’m guessing you probably had a similar experience too, I never saw myself represented in any kind of media. There’s something that happens when people don’t see or believe in your stories or your family’s stories. I’ve actually had teachers tell me that the Japanese internment didn’t happen because they didn’t know about it. The more children see themselves reflected in media, loving media created about them, the better. I am excited about this book crossing over into different arenas and places that aren’t necessarily typical for children’s books, like mental health divisions, reentry programs, police departments, indigenous groups, nonprofits. The more crossover there can be, the more conversations, the more people can see each other more clearly.

Visual storytelling can open up conversation, and I do think that this book can be a gentle way to do that. Social workers have told me that Dad Bakes will be a gentle way for us to have some challenging conversations with kids who have a hard time talking about this stuff. Because a lot of the time, kids don’t really know about where their parents have been when their parents are incarcerated. They don’t always get the full story, but there is a way to talk to them about missing their parents. It might be a way for parents to have conversations with children like, what did you do while I was away? Or it can showcase how they keep in touch and how they can rebuild their bond.

Dinh: Oh, I loved how in the first couple pages of the book, we see the letters. The letter writing process is such a central and meaningful part of keeping in touch.

Yamasaki: Yeah, for us, it’s kind of an insider clue. With our experiences, we’ll see that right away, whereas other people will have to go back to that later. My four-year-old daughter asked, “What are the letters for?” She knows about the internment, and we talk about separation, but we are still forming ways to talk about present-day mass incarceration. From this lens, parents can talk about incarceration at the pace that they feel is right for their child. There’s an easy way to think about incarceration: a cartoon show might show us a jail. The message is that someone did something bad so they go to jail; bad people go to jail and good people stay here. Cartoons don’t address how incarceration has to do with race and class and mental health and the whole system. What we really want is abolition, but that is a longer conversation—although probably a concept children will understand more easily than most! I hope that the book will let parents have these conversations with their kids when they’re ready.

Dinh: I’m thinking about what you said about gentle ways to open conversations. Because children’s books are a genre read across generations, the book is also a gentle way to get adult readers to think about abolition, too.

Yamasaki: Yeah, 100%. That was the main reason I put the author’s note in the back. Kids might approach the book and think, okay, that guy had to go to prison for a while now, and he’s back. Okay. But they learn the stigma and shame from the adults around them, who refuse to talk to them, who refuse to face it, who make up lies about the whole thing. A lot of people who’ve never known somebody who’s been incarcerated or who have never been to a prison, it’s this terrifying thing that, I don’t know, activates all of their racist tendencies.

Dinh: So much of our conversation is thinking about stories that have been buried underneath other narratives that take up so much space. Do you feel like the book is drawing attention to these buried conversations specifically in Asian American communities?

Yamasaki: You know, it’s funny because in reviews of this book, they’ve described the dad as East Asian. I’m like, maybe he’s East Asian, maybe he’s LatinX. Maybe he’s South Asian or Indigenous or Mixed Race. It doesn’t actually matter, but I feel happy if this can be part of an Asian or Asian American narrative. I’m working on a picture book about my grandfather, who was an architect. He grew up in Seattle’s Japantown, and he later designed the World Trade Center, but his life in America was tough. A lot of people talk about him now as a champ or kind of symbol for rebuilding after the war, but he spent a lot of his life trying to prove his worth in a country that told him he was nothing. Now, finally, all this stuff is coming to air, unfortunately because of all the violent acts against Asians. People are finally realizing there’s racism against Asian people in this country. There’s so much that doesn’t get talked about.

Dinh: I’m reminded of what you wrote on your website: that artists create symbols that can be interpreted in different ways, and how you can try to control or add to that narrative a bit more through your work.

Yamasaki: Add to the narrative, I think. Nobody is ever just one thing.

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