By Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Jenn Ely. Charlesbridge, 2022. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 7–10.
Being a Friend of a certain age, there were two things I noted when I received this book. The most obvious was the title. I’m a big fan of the actor Burt Lancaster and therefore a fan of the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz. If you are familiar with that story, you will see some parallels to this one. But what really struck me was the style of the illustrations. I watched a lot of cartoons when I was a boy, and the illustrations reminded me of a certain style of cartoon from the late 1950s to early ’60s that I have not seen for a long time. So right away, I fell in love with this book.
The book’s titular gardener is Elliott Michener, a convicted counterfeiter, who arrives at Alcatraz in 1941. At first, he occupies his time devising escape plans, knowing, of course, that no one had ever successfully escaped from the island prison. He keeps his nose clean and is a model prisoner. He even returns a key that he finds while on cleanup duty. Impressed with this act of honesty, the warden offers him a job in the prison’s gardens. Michener doesn’t know anything about gardening, but he thinks that because the gardens are outside the prison’s walls, the job might lead to an opportunity to escape.
However, Michener ends up enjoying his work so much that he gradually gives up on the idea of escaping. He rebuilds the garden’s terraces. He reads and studies everything he can find about plants, flowers, and gardening. He trades cut flowers with the guards for seeds he can’t otherwise get. Eventually, he even manages to land a job in the warden’s home. His newfound knowledge and enthusiasm for his work will lead to a successful life after prison, a life away from crime.
Like Smith’s previous (also delightful) book, The Pig War, The Gardener of Alcatraz tells a unique tale in a style that is fun to read while still telling a serious story. Her prose just begs to be read aloud. And as previously noted, the illustrations are bright and quirky, as befits such a “colorful” topic. The story is supplemented by a historical timeline, an epilogue, a history of Alcatraz, photographs, and a bibliography.
Since the founding of our faith community, Friends have had (and continue to have) a deep concern regarding prisons and the ways we in our larger society view and care for incarcerated people. With that history in mind, here is an enjoyable, uplifting story of crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and redemption that young Friends (and adults) will be able to share and discuss.
David Austin is currently a “free agent Friend” in search of a meeting. He is a retired history teacher living in Marlton, N.J. His middle-grade novel in verse recounting the true story of a Holocaust survivor, Small Miracle, is available from Ferwood Press.