Ruby on the Outside

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Ruby on the Outside Book Poster Image
Honest, affecting story of fifth-grader with mom in prison.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Procedures and rules involved in visiting someone in prison. Plea bargain explained. Characteristics of a living organism listed.

Positive Messages

Punishment makes you sad, mad, and lonely; it doesn't necessarily teach you a lesson. Society needs mothers who love their children; children need mothers to love them. Just because you're used to something doesn't mean it's normal or OK. It's better to be honest and open than to try to live with a secret.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ruby works hard in school and always tries to be good. She tries to keep her family life a secret but learns that you can't have real friendship when you're hiding something. She finds a positive outlet for her feelings by writing a story about them. Her mother's in prison, but Ruby visits her regularly and they have a loving relationship. Her mother knows her own mistake means that Ruby also is paying a terrible price for it. Ruby lives with her aunt, who's loving, caring, and a good mentor.

Violence & Scariness

The circumstances of a past murder by gunshot are told without gore.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin, takes on the difficult subject of how a child copes with having her mother in prison. The mother's crime (being an accessory to murder) is recounted, and drugs are mentioned several times as involved in the crime, as are how visitation procedures are meant to prevent smuggling drugs into prison. It will get kids thinking about criminal justice and about jail as an effective (or ineffective) punishment. Ruby's a good role model who finds positive ways to cope with her feelings, and she remains emotionally close to her mother even though they only see each other under difficult circumstances. Ruby's new friend Margalit also is a good role model for how to be a friend and how to handle awkward social situations.

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What's the story?

Fifth-grader Ruby has never had a best friend. Her mother is in prison, and Ruby's afraid that if she gets close to someone, that person will find out and won't like Ruby anymore. During the summer before she starts middle school, Ruby sees a new girl in their condo complex and is immediately drawn to her. Soon they become best friends, and the idea of starting middle school in the fall doesn't seem so scary anymore. But Ruby learns that their two families may be connected by the crime that landed her mother in jail. Can she keep the connection a secret and stay best friends with Margalit?

Is it any good?

Veteran author Nora Raleigh Baskin takes on a tough subject with honesty and warmth. Protagonist Ruby is remarkably resilient, and kids will really relate to her struggles with powerful, sometimes scary emotions, thanks to her strong, believable voice. Intrigue and interest are maintained as Ruby slowly pieces together her mother's story. The plot has a disappointing weakness when one of Ruby's main fears turns out to be unfounded because of a coincidence. Otherwise the story's compelling enough that young readers probably will just breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

RUBY ON THE OUTSIDE will get kids thinking about the criminal justice system and about how incarceration punishes many more people than the ones actually serving their sentences. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how hard it is when a loved one is in prison. Why doesn't Ruby want anyone to know about her mother?

  • What kinds of things does Margalit say and do that make her such a good friend? What other stories of friendship have you read or seen in the movies?

  • When Ruby gets detention, she says that instead of it teaching her a lesson, it makes her sad, mad, and lonely. Do you think detention was a fair punishment for Ruby? What could her teacher have done instead of giving Ruby detention?

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For kids who love coming-of-age and frinedship stories

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