Raised In A Prison, 'The Warden's Daughter' Decides It's Time To Find A Mom | WYPR

Raised In A Prison, 'The Warden's Daughter' Decides It's Time To Find A Mom

Jan 8, 2017
Originally published on January 8, 2017 3:07 pm

"There must be something about me and orphans," says author Jerry Spinelli.

Several of Spinelli's novels tell orphan stories, including his Newbery award-winning book Maniac Magee.

"People come from other people," he says. "And if you remove one of the elements in that equation you're left with someone who is, in some sense, abandoned — and that changes the equation."

In his latest book, The Warden's Daughter, Spinelli tells the story of Cammie O'Reilly, who lost her mother when she was a baby. Cammie has grown up in the Hancock County Prison, where her dad is the warden. With her 13th birthday approaching, Cammie decides it's time to find a mom, so she seeks out maternal support from the female inmates.

Spinelli talks with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about how Cammie "auditions" women to be the mom she seeks, and his real-life inspiration for the story, which he found in his hometown of Norristown, Pa.


Interview Highlights

On the setting of the book

That prison, incidentally, still exists. ... Visit Norristown, Pennsylvania and go to Airy Street ... you will see what looks like an artifact from the Middle Ages. It's the old Montgomery County prison and it still stands there.

I met someone who, in fact, was the model for Cammie O'Reilly. Her name was Ellen Adams and she told me one day, about 15 years ago: I grew up in prison. I pretty much took that tag line and cooked up a story to go with it.

On why many of his characters have lost a parent

Maniac Magee ... was an orphan and I have a couple of other stories along similar lines.

I suppose I just find it dramatically inviting. ...That's what most writers are always on the lookout for, you know, the person, the situation that is different.

On Cammie's anger

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.

On what Ellen Adams thinks of the book

She loves it. I told her in the beginning, I said: Ellen, listen, this is not going to be your biography. Cammie is younger than Ellen was when she lived in the prison. And while Ellen's mother did die, it wasn't until Ellen was in college, I believe, whereas in the book Cammie's mother dies before the action of the book even begins.

She was hoping that I could find a spot for her dog. ... It must have been pretty small because she said that he had the run of the prison and he used to squeeze behind the bars of the cells and visit the inmates. I tried and tried to find a way to work that puppy into the story, and I just couldn't do it, and that's one of my regrets. But she is totally happy with all the rest of it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Growing up without a mother is never easy. But 12-year-old Cammie O'Reilly has a lot of help from an unusual support group - female inmates. In the book "The Warden's Daughter," Cammie navigates the difficult waters of becoming a teenager while living with her dad, the warden, at a local prison in a small Pennsylvania town called Two Mills. Newbery medal-winning author Jerry Spinelli joins us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Great to have you on the show.

JERRY SPINELLI: Thank you, Lulu. Nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with the main character, Cammie. Tell me a little bit about her and what she's going through.

SPINELLI: Well, her life is changing in the sense that she's lived being a motherless kid up until about the age of 12 and then decided that it's time to stop being motherless. I want a mother.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as I mentioned, she lives in a prison. It's not just a motherless girl, but she has this very unusual setting.

SPINELLI: Yes. And that prison incidentally still exists. Anybody cares to visit Norristown, Pa. and go to Airy Street, and you will see what looks like an artifact from the Middle Ages. And it's the old Montgomery County Prison, and it still stands there. And I met someone who, in fact, was the model for Cammie O'Reilly. And her name was Ellen Adams. And she told me one day about 15 years ago, I grew up in prison. I pretty much took that tag line and cooked up a story to go with it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the other characters in the book. You have two people who might be mothers for young Cammie. One is called Eloda Pupko, who takes care of Cammie. The other is Boo Boo, another inmate who is sort of larger-than-life.

SPINELLI: The book begins pretty much with, as I say, Cammie deciding that her motherless days are coming to an end and she wants a mother now. And how does she get one? And what she does is begin to notice an inmate trustee who is the housekeeper for their quarters in the prison. And she begins more or less to audition her and to try to fashion her into the mother that she decides she wants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What were you trying to sort of show by having these different women show these motherly instincts towards the character?

SPINELLI: There must be something about me and orphans. Maniac Magee in my book of that title was an orphan, and I have a couple of other stories along similar lines. I suppose I just find it dramatically inviting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is so inviting about that?

SPINELLI: People come from other people. And if you remove one of the elements in that equation, you're left with someone who is in some sense abandoned, and that changes the equation. And that invites situations and pain that would not necessarily be present. And that's what most writers are always on the lookout for, you know? The person, the situation that is different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This character, Cammie, what really drew me to her is that she's so angry.

SPINELLI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She is furious throughout this entire book. Tell me where you think Cammie's anger comes from.

SPINELLI: Something in her is unhappy, is frustrated, and that results in angry behavior for a kid whose 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. And it seems to me that that's what Cammie shows as she's growing up and probably not even knowing why she's that way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has Ellen Adams, the woman who inspired the character of Cammie, has she read the book? And what does she think?

SPINELLI: She loves it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

SPINELLI: I told her in the beginning - I said, Ellen, listen, this is not going to be your biography. Cammie is younger than Ellen was when she lived in the prison. And while Ellen's mother did die, it wasn't until Ellen was in college, I believe. Whereas in the book, Cammie's mother dies before the action of the book even begins. She was hoping that I could find a spot for her dog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Her dog.

SPINELLI: (Laughter) I can't remember - it must've been pretty small because she said that he had the run of the prison and he used to squeeze behind the bars of the cells...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

SPINELLI: ...And visit the inmates. And I tried and tried to find a way to work that puppy into the story, and I just couldn't do it, and it's one of my regrets. But she is totally happy with all the rest of it. And I think she enjoys the idea that maybe I'm making her famous.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jerry Spinelli. His new book is "The Warden's Daughter." Thanks so much for being with us.

SPINELLI: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.