The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli


The Warden’s Daughter

Jerry Spinelli, Author

Alfred A Knopf, Fiction, Jan. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Growing up in a prison, Motherless, Grief, Coming of age, Courage

Opening: “It’s a BIRDHOUSE NOW. It used to be a jailhouse. The Hancock County Prison…It looks like a fortress from the Middle Ages…The prison was a city block long. It was home to over two hundred inmates, men and women, from shoplifters to murders. And one family. Mine. I was the warden’s daughter.”

Synopsis: Cammie O’Reilly lives in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Jail in Pennsylvania with her father, the warden. She’s twelve years old and motherless. Her mother was killed in a tragic accident when she was a baby.  Cammie spends much of her time mad at the world and heaven.  She searches for mother figures in the only women she knows — the inmates she spends her mornings hanging out with in the women’s exercise yard. They are not ideal candidates, like the  flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo. But she settles on trying to make the family’s housekeeper, Eloda Pupko, her mother figure. Eloda understands Cammie better than anyone. She see’s Cammie’s torment, knows she is headed for trouble, and helps her grieve in an unexpected way.

Why I liked this book:

Spinelli’s novel will tug at reader’s heart-strings from the first page. This compelling and emotionally deep novel is a coming of age story about a troubled teen who has never really dealt with the tragic death of her mother — a mother she never had the chance to know. Instead she’s grown up in an odd and cold atmosphere not meant for a child. And she yearns for the warmth of a loving relationship with a mother and family. The subject of grief is realistically tackled with honesty and sensitivity.

Spinelli’s novel is fast-paced, tightly plotted, and the tension palpable. It will keep readers engaged. The story is driven by a cast of colorful characters who are dealing with their own demons. They add for many somber and humorous moments to the story. Cammie’s narrates the story with her strong voice, fiery personality and a determination that earns her the nickname Cannonball. She’s in danger of lighting the fuse, as her anger reaches a boiling point over the summer.

Readers will enjoy exploring the prison fortress and life behind bars, visiting the death tower with its dangling noose and hanging salamis, spending time in the prison exercise yard and meditation area, and walking the forbidden outside deck.

Jerry Spinelli is the author of many books for young readers, including Stargirl; Love, Stargirl; Milkweed; Crash; Maniac Magee, winner of the Newberry Medal; Wringer, winner of a Newbery Honor; Eggs; Jake and Lily; and Knots in my Yo-yo String, his autobiography.  Visit Jerry Spinelli at his website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

32 thoughts on “The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

  1. This sounds great. A lot like last year’s ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T COOK who also lived in a prison near his incarcerated mother. A very rare setting in the world of MG. I’ll be reading THE WARDEN’S DAUGHTER for sure. Thanks for your insightful review.


  2. This book is on my to-read list. I had the chance a few weeks ago to listen to both Jerry Spinelli and Richard Peck talk about their latest books at Books of Wonder. Wonderful review, Pat!


    • Yes, I was captivated by the setting. I think of a medieval looking prison we drove past as a child and I always closed my eyes. It was scary. So, I found this story and setting very intriguing! Loved it!


  3. Thanks for alerting us to this book. A dear friend was a warden’s son and I was always fascinated by his stories. From what you’ve described , this one will surely be a winner.


    • I agree with you. I knew I learned about this book from someone — it must have been you. I write down titles that intrigue me and I love Spinelli. If you were the inspiration for my reviewing this book, thank you!


  4. Wow! This sounds like a very deep and emotional story. Especially since very few books (at least of the books I’ve read) have depicted prisons as something other than a place for ‘terrible’ people. I also love how the cover seems to reflect the book! Thanks for the fabulous review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I love the cover which speaks to the inner prison Cammie has created for herself. I like this book because it is a period piece — probably around the 50s, which offers a different perspective. I can imagine during that time there being a home for the warden and the family — makes me think of the movie MY GIRL, where she lives in the funeral home. I was taken by the story.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I felt the same way. But, once I realized that it was a period piece, it made me think about how Cammie’s life wouldn’t be possible today. The story is realistic and I found it both heartbreaking and humorous.


  5. I did not like this one. It was bad enough that we had a dead mother (are there any middle grade parents who are alive and functional?), but what happened with Boo Boo was unacceptable. Spinelli is good, but this one… I just don’t understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing you honest thoughts about Spinelli’s novel. It encourages discussions and made me think about your thoughts. This novel is a period piece (50s), which I found compelling. It would not happen today. Again, thank you and I hope I hear from others who may not have enjoyed the novel.


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