The Warden's Daughter

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
The Warden's Daughter Book Poster Image
Heartbreaking story of motherless girl's grief, healing.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Very clear messages about dealing with grief and anger, confronting troubles, communicating openly with loved ones, and caring for others. Richly developed setting gives a glimpse of daily life in a 1959  Pennsylvanian town. Compassionate portrayal of prison community.

Positive Messages

"Mad is a monster that chews itself." When you're emotionally out of control, it's easy for anger to fill in the empty spaces. Bad times end. Your past doesn't need to define your future. To be free of anger and guilt, you have to make amends for your actions. Play a role long enough and it might no longer be just a role. Empathy and kindness don't always come in familiar packages. Irresponsible behavior can have serious unintended consequences.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cammie is willfully inconsiderate and unkind, lashing out at the world in anger. She acknowledges she's hard to like, but her vulnerability and clear frustration over being so prickly reveal her good heart and make it easy to root for her. Cammie can be cruel toward her inmate caretaker, but she tries to shield inmates from gossipy, curious friends. Although she keenly feels the lack of a mother, Cammie is surrounded by caring adults, from her father and caretaker to the inmates and prison staff, but none feels very nurturing. Cammie's father is virtually absent for much of the story, including Cammie's darkest moments, but later is portrayed with great warmth and affection. Eloda is a strong presence but generally appears emotionally aloof.


Cammie acts out when she's angry: She shoplifts, litters, spits on cars, deliberately leaves messes for her caretaker to clean up, and sometimes strikes friends. She mentally replays the moment her mother was struck and killed by a truck. An important character commits suicide. A side story involves the looming execution of a man who killed a local teen.


References to teen girl's physical maturity and attractiveness.


"Damn you" shouted in anger.


Brand-name references, particularly referencing time and place, include cars (Studebaker), snacks (Tastykakes, Life Savers), Salem cigarettes.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Inmates smoke cigarettes. Young characters occasionally experiment with cigarettes: One is trying to seem cool, and another is actually trying to get scolded for it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Warden's Daughter, by Newbery Medal-winning author Jerry Spinelli (Maniac Magee), is a sharp, beautifully written portrayal of a tween's grief, anger, and eventual healing. The book is written in Cammie's voice as a grandmother looking back on her tumultuous 13th summer in 1959. Many tweens will relate to Cammie's sense of isolation, though probably not her circumstances. There's a strong sense of community in the prison where Cammie lives, but the adults who should be closest to her seem emotionally unavailable. Spinelli shares some wisdom on struggling through intensely difficult emotions, but the justification for why the adults in Cammie's life don't give her the nurturing she needs undercuts his message. Cammie gets involved in some physical altercations, but most of the violence is told secondhand: Her mother died saving her from an oncoming truck, a man who killed a teen faces execution, and an important character commits suicide.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byms. adult August 29, 2018
This book is amazing for teenagers or preteens who are struggling with their emotions.

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What's the story?

THE WARDEN'S DAUGHTER, Cammie, is being raised by her father in living quarters at the prison he oversees, with an inmate named Eloda as her latest caretaker. She's haunted by the death of her mother, who was struck and killed by a truck after shoving Cammie out of harm's way. Cammie feels motherless and adrift with bitter grief: She tries to provoke Eloda with increasingly outrageous behavior, she needily basks in the attention of female inmates (particularly Boo Boo, a shoplifter who smothers Cammie with affection), and she fights with her best friend, who's intent on boosting her own popularity. When a sudden, shocking loss knocks her into a deep depression, it takes an act of great empathy for Cammie to realize she isn't so alone.

Is it any good?

Newbery medalist Jerry Spinelli's story about a girl imprisoned by her own grief and anger is an achingly realistic story about confronting our demons, despite its contrived, too-easy ending. The Warden's Daughter is at its best as it follows Cammie furiously pedaling through the streets or holed up in the prison, nursing her wounded heart. The backward-looking narrative assures us that bad times do indeed pass. Spinelli dials up the sense of perspective with a strong historical setting: an era when the TV show American Bandstand is all the rage, girls don't play ball, and white kids steer clear of the black part of town.

Spinelli (Stargirl, Eggs) takes problematic shortcuts to clean up after Cammie's "bad time" -- post-epiphany, she swiftly goes from angry outcast to well-liked classmate, and the absence of nurturing adults is portrayed as deliberate and helpful. Another misstep is the stereotyping of Boo Boo, a joyful, obese black inmate who showers attention on Cammie.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Cammie's efforts to provoke her father and Eloda in The Warden's Daughter. Do you -- or people you know -- sometimes act out to get attention when you're feeling hurt or lonely?

  • Cammie rides her bike when she's feeling angry. What do you do when you're overwhelmed by emotions such as anger?

  • Which caring adults in your life can empathize with what you're going through?

Book details

Our editors recommend

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

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