A New Zealand children's picture book about having a parent in prison is winning international plaudits and positive reviews – including one from the daughter of a "career criminal" whose earliest memories are of meeting her father in jail.
Ivana Mlinac wrote Stardust - We Always Share the Same Sky after completing her master's degree in Criminology, during which she studied the effects on children of having a parent in prison. In New Zealand, an estimated 23,000 children have parents in prison and, says Mlinac, they often face separation anxiety, financial hardship, bullying and stigma.
Ashlee-Ann, who spoke to the Herald on condition we didn't use her last name, has given Mlinac's picture book a thumbs up. Ashlee-Ann was a baby when her father was jailed for murder and said one of her earliest memories was of visiting him in prison.
"I don't remember a time when I wasn't visiting him in prison," she said. "I guess one of the main impacts this had on me was the inherent stigma and associated shame and guilt."
But Ashlee-Ann didn't realise her life was different to other children because it was simply normal to her but at 8 or 9, she began to understand there were things she shouldn't tell others because they would treat her differently.
"I started to notice kids would look at me in a funny way," she recalled. "I told someone who I thought was a friend and she told her parents who must have said something along the lines of, 'don't play with her anymore' and she told me she didn't want to be my friend anymore. I learned to careful after that."
The prison visits made her determined not to end up there. Ashlee-Ann studied at the University of Auckland, a year behind Mlinac, obtaining at BA with a double major in English and Criminology and now works at the Ministry of Justice as an advisor and for the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network.
She says she still fears the reactions of those around her who connect her with her father and may perceive her differently because of that.
"This has been perpetuated by some of the interactions I've had with Corrections officers and police who treated me like my dad's crimes somehow also transferred to me," Ashlee-Ann said. "We live in a very punitive society and the burden of these attitudes often falls onto families.
"I love Ivana's book and think it will be an amazing resource. We need resources like this. I think if I'd had a book like this, it might have helped me and my mum to open up a conversation and talk more about what was going on."
After completing her MA research, 27-year-old Mlinac wanted to do more to start conversations, which she hopes will reduce the sense of shame and guilt many kids carry about having a parent in prison. She says talking about the issue and being more supportive of these youngsters could go some way to reducing the country's prison population.
In New Zealand, children with a parent behind bars are more than nine times more likely than other Kiwi kids to end up in prison as adults. Yet their stories are rarely told or heard so Mlinac decided to write a picture book about "a girl who lived her life a little differently".
Mlinac hasn't had a parent or partner in prison, but she said being a mother helped her to appreciate what children may feel.
With funding from the Wright Family Foundation and help from friend Porsche Tiavale, who illustrated the book, Mlinac has now published her book.
The sensitively told and illustrated book explains how the girl feels and the conversations she has with her mother who tells her "no matter how far apart we are, we always share the same sky, and with that also come the stars".
Reviewing Stardust on the NZBooklovers site, Rebekah Fraser said, "there is no doubt this heartbreaking yet hopeful story will change lives". Sara Croft, on The Reader, the Booksellers NZ blog wrote, "It is refreshing to see different life experiences honestly portrayed in a children's book. It gives the words which young children and their carers need to express complicated feelings and the situations that develop from having a parent in prison."
Pillars, a charity for the children of prisoners, is backing Stardust while US researcher and author Megan Comfort has provided an endorsement saying: "This heartfelt, charmingly illustrated book acknowledges the loss children feel when a parent is incarcerated, while also providing a framework for resiliency and connection."
• Stardust by Ivana Mlinac (Mary Egan Publishing, $20) is out now.