Jerry Spinelli is well known for weaving both the joys and struggles of growing up into his hugely popular books for kids. Since publishing his first book, Space Station Seventh Grade, in 1982, Jerry has written over 30 novels for young readers, including Newbery Medal-winning Maniac Magee, New York Times bestseller Stargirl, and Newbery Honor Book Wringer.
In his new middle grade novel, The Warden’s Daughter, young readers meet “Cannonball” Cammie, an energetic, tomboyish, and very spoiled 12-year-old girl who lives in the town prison that her father supervises. Haunted by the loss of her mother, Cammie seeks out a maternal figure among the incarcerated women of the prison, including Boo Boo, a vivacious shoplifter, and Eloda, a sullen arsonist tasked with serving as Cammie’s caretaker during the day. We were thrilled to chat with Jerry about the inspiration behind this heartfelt book, what he hopes kids will take away from it, and — in his opinion — the best way to make an ice cream sundae.
What inspired you to write The Warden’s Daughter?
Ellen Adams. I met her about 15 years ago. We had both lived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, but hadn’t known each other. She told me she “grew up in prison,” then explained that her father was warden of the county prison, and that’s where she lived with her parents, above the cellblock. So there it was: Girl grows up in prison. I took Ellen’s gift, wrapped it in a story, and called it The Warden’s Daughter.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that aspects of your childhood find their way into your books. Have pieces of your life made their way into this book?
Oh sure. Cammie rides her bike all over town and even as far as Valley Forge, like I did. She plays shortstop. And eats foot-long hotdogs at the corner store. And loves pie.
Breaking free of the past is a major theme in the book. Can you talk a bit about that and what conversations you were hoping to spark with readers around this topic? Have you ever felt the way Cammie did?
This was me being a fictioneer, as I was mostly happy with my childhood and was not especially anxious to put it behind me. Maybe it was having a good, stable family life myself that led me to feel for those who did not. As a written book is incomplete without a reader, so a parentless child is in some ways missing a part of him or herself. I would think discussions among readers might turn to appreciating the parents we so often take for granted simply because they’re always there.
I would also turn attention to Eloda Pupko and the quietly heroic sacrifice she makes to lead Cammie to the threshold of a future.
Cammie doesn’t always know how to express her emotions, particularly when it comes to losing the people she cares about. What would you say to young kids who may be dealing with these feelings or experiencing a similar loss?
Take a break from the cellphone. Read good stories. Talk to (don’t text) real people. In doing so you will be practicing your humanity, getting ready for when the time comes to upload your emotions into words and actions.
The New York Times called you a “poet of the prepubescent.” How do you understand kids and the challenges of growing up to depict them so well in your books?
Simple — I remember. I was there.
With 6 kids, and 30 grandkids and great-grandkids, you’ve no doubt read a lot of children’s books. Which ones have you especially enjoyed reading with them?
Boo Boo gives Cammie very specific instructions on how to order her “proxy” ice cream sundae. How do you take your sundae?
Vanilla ice cream. Hot fudge syrup. Wet walnuts. Whipped cream. Cherry.
Okay, make that two cherries.
We’re celebrating the release of Jerry Spinelli’s new novel with a book giveaway! Five lucky readers will win a copy of The Warden’s Daughter and a Brightly tote bag. Tell us which of Jerry’s books is your favorite in the comments below to be entered to win!