Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Prisoner 88, written by Leah Pileggi. Charlesbridge, Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $18.99 ages 10 and up
Of her debut novel for children and its genesis, Leah Pileggi says: "On a scorching hot day in June of 2007, I took a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho, a historical site known as the Old Pen. As I tried to find even a sliver of shade, the docent mentioned that the youngest prisoner ever incarcerated there was ten years old." Can that be true? Yes, it can. That wee mention led the author to a germ of an idea that would cause her to write about a time in America's history when someone so young could actually be sentenced to five years in prison.
How did he make it through his sentence? Ms. Pileggi imagines what might have happened and shares her thoughts in the pages of this fine story. Sure to inspire discussion with those who share it, this is a story that opens our eyes to the many injustices that are evident when those accused are too poor, too young, too unfortunate to find suitable representation when they are falsely convicted of a crime. Jake is placed in Old Pen with all the other prisoners who find themselves serving time, and for many and sundry crimes. Even the powers that be in the prison wonder at his placement there; but, he is there to serve his sentence and must be treated as other prisoners are treated.
When he defies authority, or speaks out of turn, his punishment is harsh and immediate. He is blessed to find himself with a cast of characters who take him under their wings and help to keep him out of trouble. Jake is a strong character with an amiable personality and a singular voice:
"That word is 'foolish'," he said, pointing. Then he read the whole sentence and said what he thought it meant. A smart son makes his parents happy, but a foolish son is like a heavy weight on his parents. I figured then that I must be one of them foolish sons, 'cause it sure seemed I was a heavy weight on my pa. So heavy that he just dropped me and took off."
Resilient and resigned to what the law doles out, Jake goes about his days working with the hogs, listening to the men who befriend him, and trying to get through what would frighten most anyone, never mind a ten year old. He tells his story with heart and simplicity, giving us a boy to honor and remember long after the reading is done.