The Warden’s Daughter

Yesterday, Jerry Spinelli’s newest book, The Warden’s Daughter, was released. I started reading it a bit earlier (thanks to NetGalley), but I didn’t manage to finish it until last night. It took a little while for me to gain traction with this book, but I flew through the latter half after school yesterday. As I got closer to the end, I was reading through a veil of tears. I needed a good cry, and this book delivered.

Cammie O’Reilly doesn’t exactly have a normal home. She is the warden’s daughter, and she and her father live in a little apartment attached to the Hancock County Prison. A prison trustee, Eloda Pupko, takes care of Cammie, and Cammie is friendly with many of the female inmates. As much as she wishes differently, though, none of them can really take the place of the mother who died when Cammie was just a baby. Or can they?

During the summer of 1959, Cammie does whatever she can to get someone, preferably Eloda, to mother her. It doesn’t seem to be working out for her, and this just adds to Cammie’s general sense of unhappiness. Sure, she has things she enjoys–talking about American Bandstand with her friend Reggie, playing baseball, eating junk food until she’s sick, and talking to Boo Boo, one of Hancock’s most colorful prisoners–but Cammie is not really happy.

This summer, big changes are in store for Cammie, and it’s not just turning the big 1-3. A new, controversial prisoner enters Hancock’s gates. Reggie, Cammie’s best friend, becomes obsessed with fame. Cammie finds friends–and an odd sense of family–in an unlikely situation. And Cammie’s entire world is rocked by a loss that no one could have anticipated.

Cammie struggles to cope with everything happening around her, and she lashes out at those close to her. Her anger and sorrow make her reckless, and she begins doing things she never thought she would. Her life seems to be spiraling out of control, and she doesn’t know how to get back on track.

What will it take for Cammie to become truly happy? Perhaps someone who’s been looking out for her–loving her–all along will give her just the push she needs…


The Warden’s Daughter is a great piece of historical fiction that is ideal for middle grade collections. Would I place it in an elementary library? Probably not. I’m not sure that my students are developmentally ready to tackle the question of capital punishment–an issue that is addressed in this book. There are also a few other situations in the book (suicide, rebellion, smoking, etc.) that, in my humble opinion, make it more suited to a middle grade audience.

I do think that this book could start some interesting discussions on how people in prison are treated. Cammie’s father, the warden, doesn’t treat his inmates as if they are subhuman. He treats them, even those who’ve committed the most heinous crimes, with respect. That’s something very different than what I’ve seen portrayed on the news and in various other forms of media. It might be worthwhile to have readers examine Callie’s father’s mindset with how today’s prisons are run or how they are portrayed in the media. Which way is better, and how can prisons be reformed? It’s thought-provoking to say the least.

If The Warden’s Daughter sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to give it a read. Given that I’m not normally drawn to historical fiction, I liked it a lot. I hope you will, too.

To learn more about this book and others by Jerry Spinelli, visit the author’s website. Enjoy!

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