One of my favorite books that I read as a teacher to my fifth grade students was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. I am excited to have come across his new book published last year, The Warden’s Daughter.
This is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of Cammie O’Reilly – a twelve-almost thirteen year old girl who lives in an apartment above the cell blocks of the Hancock County Prison. She interacts every day with the prisoners that live there and she has authority – they listen to her because she is the Warden’s daughter. The one thing she doesn’t have is a mother. Her mother died when Cammie was a baby, saving her but being tragically struck by a milk truck.
The one thing Cammie wants to find during this summer before she enters Junior High School – is someone to fill the position of mother. And since she is familiar with the inmates in the women’s prison – that is where she goes. She looks among the criminals to find someone who can serve in the mother role.
What results is a coming-of-age story that shows the realities of living in the late 1950’s and how the novelty of being a warden’s daughter affects her relationship with others. It also touches on the emotional struggles that Cammie has – she is someone that doesn’t think she can be happy until she finds the one thing she looks for. And she looks and looks without letting race or past of a person get in the way.
I recommend this book as one that students in the fourth through eighth grades read. It touches on the emptiness a young person can feel that is dealing with loss. It is told from Cammie’s perspective and not as an adult trying to brush certain issues aside. Cammie is also a character that is not always nice – and to have that in a main character is refreshing and truthful. Cammie is real, although living in a place not many ever experience and talking to people most would shun, she experiences real feelings, has real expectations, and wants things that most girls her age wants.
Jerry Spinelli comments on Cammie’s anger in an interview with NPR.
Something in her is unhappy, is frustrated, and that results in angry behavior. … [Her] nickname becomes “Cannonball.” And it just seems to me that if you take a kid who is missing something, that that is going to produce a certain kind of behavior. It seems to me that that’s what Cammie shows. She’s growing up and probably not even knowing why she’s that way.
For those that loved Maniac Magee as much as my students and I did, The Warden’s Daughter revisits the town on Two Mills, Pennsylvania. There is some nostalgia at reading the names of streets and places.
The Warden’s Daughter is a book that needs to be shared and read. Just as I read Maniac Magee out loud to my students – Spinelli creates another story I feel is as important to share as well.
And for teacher’s wanting to have your students compare the two Spinelli books, check out my Compare & Contrast Assignments on Teachers Pay Teachers.