Dear Dad: Growing Up with a Parent in Prison—and How We Stayed Connected, traces the life of teen tech mogul Jay’AinaJay Jay” Patton—from academic phenom to creator of the groundbreaking app Photo Patch, which has connected more than 75,000 youths with their incarcerated parents. In advance of ALA, PW spoke with Patton about graphic novels, how taboos around incarceration don’t serve children, and using technology for good.

Why is it important to talk about incarceration?

It can be very taboo. When I was younger and growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., it was sadly very common for family members to be in prison. Once I moved [in middle school], I was afraid to talk about it because I felt ashamed. I would tell my friends, “Oh, my dad’s in the military.” This book is a way to break those barriers and invite children and families to look at this topic as something that anybody should be ashamed of. Yes, people make mistakes and go to prison, but let’s not make it something to feel bad for talking about.

What was it like to imagine your story as a graphic novel?

I’m a reader, and when I was younger, I enjoyed reading graphic novels. It was a really fun process to go behind the scenes. It was surreal to see my family and me become these characters. My siblings loved it so much. My little brother appears in the book as a baby, and he’s like, “Oh my God, that’s me!” My little sister’s like, “That’s Dad, that’s Jay Jay, that’s Mommy.”

What were you able to convey about your story in a book that you hadn’t elsewhere?

Everybody knows our story, building an app, blah, blah, blah, but nobody knows where it began: me growing up with my mom, her being a single mother, having my little brother. My mom made me the person I am. She made sure that I was staying in contact with my dad. Family has always been a big part of my life; that’s at the forefront of the book. I love rereading the sections about my younger childhood—being with cousins, being with aunts, being with family. It always makes me smile.

We live in a world where technology is so often used for nefarious purposes. How do we use technology for good?

We use technology as a way to uplift ourselves and uplift other families. Our app allows people to talk to [family members in prison]. Our coding business teaches people a skill to use to their benefit. The tech space is huge. There are so many opportunities, even for people who look like us. We give people the tools, resources, teachers. We want people to know this is something you can get into, and that it can make a difference for the world, for yourself, for your family. Diversifying this field is something we’ve always been very passionate about. It’s hard for girls and boys who look like me to feel like this is a space that they belong in. It’s important to fight so hard for representation, so that the next generations can feel like this is a space that is also for them, and that they can be in this and have opportunities, and have careers, and build the lives they want to and not feel so intimidated, or shunned, and feel like they can’t be within this space.

What are your hopes for readers?

I wanted to make a book that people want to read again and again. [My family] got the rough draft of the book. My sister wants to read it every night. She’s glued in, paying attention, asking questions. Seeing that reaction is just so fulfilling for me. That’s what I want other kids to take from it, too. I want it to be a book that makes [readers] happy, or makes them ask questions, or inspires them.

Patton and her father, Antoine Patton, are featured speakers at ALA. They will discuss the new book with author and moderator Jason Reynolds on Saturday, June 29 at 11 a.m. PST.

Dear Dad: Growing Up with a Parent in Prison—and How We Stayed Connected by Jay Jay Patton with Kiara Valdez, illus. by Markia Jenai. Graphix, $24.99 Sept. 17 ISBN 978-1-5461-2837-3; $14.99 paper ISBN 978-1-3388-9320-5