November 30, 2017

the warden's daughter

The Warden’s Daughter

Jerry Spinelli

Pub. 2017

352 pgs.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


The summer of 1959 isn’t quite like other summers in Cammie’s life. The only child of the Hancock County Prison Warden, she’s used to being around all kinds of criminals. She’s proud of being a tomboy and doesn’t care that other kids think she’s “too jerky” or “too rough.” She’s just fine with who she is. But that doesn’t mean that she thinks she’s got it all. She knows what she’s missing: a mother.

In these tumultuous months leading up to junior high, Cammie will audition two candidates (without telling them, of course), both inmates in the women’s prison. One, the trusted housekeeper, is staid and stern and would punish Cammie just how she imagines mothers must punish their children. The other, a jolly former thief, would be the kind of mother Cammie could tell her secrets to.

With everything else around her changing (and not always for the better), how will Cammie be able to hold on to her world without losing everything she loves?



I feel like I need to preface this whole post by saying I love Jerry Spinelli. I adore Stargirl, and I have fond memories of reading Maniac Magee and Milkweed and lots of his other books. I think that’s why I was so disappointed in this book.

I’m going to make my prediction now. This book is going to be a Newbery book. I don’t know if it’s going to get the Honor or be the actual full-on winner, but I’m willing to bet that this becomes one of the Newbery books for 2017. This is for several reasons. First, The Warden’s Daughter has that whole bildungsroman thing going, so it’s all about growing up. The main character is a child who is missing a parent but desperately wants to feel the love of that parent. I’m pretty sure it’d be impossible to count on just two hands how many Newbery winners (don’t even start with the Honors) lead off with that premise. Second, it’s definitely one of those books that adults will appreciate more than kids. It’s very lush in a sort of sepia-toned nostalgia way, and books like that tend to go over well with the Newbery committee.

I know at the end of the book I was crying a little bit. That actually that used to be my gauge of whether book was good at all when I was young and foolish and knew less about literature. If a book could make me cry, then it had to be good. But with Spinelli’s book, I feel like I was crying because he knew how to play me, like he’d figured out a formula and was using it instead of making me genuinely invested in the characters. It was the melodrama in the diary section that got me, and it just came off as a calculated decision on Spinelli’s part rather than a natural result of an amazing, engrossing story.

Despite this book’s intended audience being middle-grade readers, I think what bothers me about it most is that I don’t feel like kids will really care. Sure, Cammie has spunk, but I don’t feel like they’ll understand that she’s actually a very lonely, unhappy little girl until she tells them…and since that moment comes about two hundred pages in, it’s kind of a moot point.

Then there’s the fact that Cammie is kind of—no, definitely—a spoiled brat. She tries smoking; no one stops her. She bullies her best friend; no one stops her, and the best friend keeps coming back for more. She tackles a little kid trying to score in baseball because “what’s the point in playing if you don’t win?” Still doesn’t get punished, and one of the other characters gets a crush on her (seriously, Spinelli?). She gets arrested for stealing and still nothing happens to her. This kind of mindset is why we have rapists getting away by pleading “affluenza.” It isn’t that she needs tender care because of her tragic past; it’s that she needs some actual discipline. She wants it. She craves it. It says so right in the book! But she keeps acting worse and worse and no one bothers to do anything about it. Her transformation into “decent almost-adult” comes off all the more unbelievable for this.

Okay, I know how I can illustrate my point more clearly. So both this book and Spinelli’s Newbery Medalist Maniac Magee take place in the same fictional town, Two Mills. Both are geared towards middle-school readers, and both are about young children who lost parents when they were really young. Maniac is engaging for students because it reads like a tall tale, where things keep getting more and more absurd the more you read, but there’s still an excellent message about belonging and unity and how prejudice hurts everyone. The way Maniac sees the world helps bring realistically crafted, diverse characters together. In The Warden’s Daughter, however, there’s no real message of equality or hope, despite there being prejudice and two separate sides of town. Sure, Cammie loves talking to one of the black inmates, Boo Boo, but Boo Boo’s character is so “happy Mammy” that it’s almost offensive. Towards the end of her story arc, Boo Boo changes completely with no sort of catalyst or explanation. Cammie doesn’t even try to understand it. The Strong family, a quartet of black characters who live “on the other side of the tracks” is designed with a little more care, but they really only show up for about fifteen pages total. If the prevailing message of The Warden’s Daughter is “growing up can be scary and hard,” the same could be said for Maniac Magee, though the latter has the following addendum: “but that doesn’t mean you don’t try your best anyway.”

If only that message had gotten through to Cammie.



It’ll probably win the Newbery, not because it deserves it, but because it seems to follow the formula and will make the judging committee nostalgic for the halcyon days of their youth.


Recommended for…

  • People who don’t have much else to read on their shelves
  • People with a lot of time on their hands
  • Baby boomers



  • Bullying: characters bully one another
  • Death: characters’ deaths are important plot points
  • Deceit: characters trick others
  • Lying: characters lie throughout the book to get what they want
  • Man-made Disaster
  • Murder: a character is murdered
  • Natural Disaster
  • Nudity
  • Other Illegal Activity: the inmates are imprisoned for various crimes
  • Religion: characters discuss their religious philosophies
  • Suicide: a character commits suicide
  • Theft: characters shoplift and steal from one another
  • Verbal Abuse
  • Violence: characters attack one another



  • Acceptance
  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Death
  • Determination
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Growing Up
  • Honesty
  • Mental Health
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Responsibility
  • Right vs. Wrong



Main Character 1
Subcast 1
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 1
Satisfying Resolution 1
Consideration of Themes 1
Didactic Tone 1
Suspension of Disbelief 1
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 1
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 1
Reader Enjoyment 1
Total 20/30