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

"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.

Jerry Spinelli is the author of <em>Maniac Magee, Stargirl, Wringer</em> and many other books for kids and teens.
Elmore DeMott / Random House Children's Books
Random House Children's Books
Jerry Spinelli is the author of Maniac Magee, Stargirl, Wringer and many other books for kids and teens.

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.

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