Review of The Gardener of Alcatraz, by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Jenn Ely

The Gardener of Alcatraz

by Emma Bland Smith
illustrated by Jenn Ely

Charlesbridge, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written March 1, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Finalist Elementary Nonfiction

This picture book biography tells the true story of Elliott Michener, who was imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in 1941 for counterfeiting money. At first, he worked on plans to escape. But then his life changed when he was given the job of working in the gardens.

As time passed, a funny thing happened. This gardening thing started to grow on him. He studied seed packets and books from the prison library. He built a greenhouse and tried out composting. He even created his own narcissus hybrid.

He ended up gaining the trust of the new warden and his wife and working in their home. Later, he was transferred to Leavenworth and wrote to the warden about how much he missed Alcatraz and his gardens there. Fortunately, the warden helped him get early parole, and he eventually became a landscaper.

It’s all told with colorful pictures and details that pull you into the story. The backdrop of San Francisco Bay in many pictures adds to the beauty of the book. There are 5 pages of backmatter, and we learn that the author found wonderful primary sources, including Elliott’s correspondence with the warden and prison reports. She used those to make the story come alive, in a sort of nonfiction version of The Secret Garden, where working with plants changed a man’s life.

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