cover image The Gardener of Alcatraz

The Gardener of Alcatraz

Emma Bland Smith, illus. by Jenn Ely. Charlesbridge, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-62354-160-6

Elliott Michener (1906–1997) lies in bed on the prison island of Alcatraz, where he’s just arrived following conviction for counterfeiting. Shadows of bars fall across his face as he contemplates escape. But after a good deed singles him out as “someone honest,” he’s charged with creating terraces for gardens beyond the prison fence. Finding the work fulfilling, Michener transforms the island, winning recognition as a gardener (“He even created his own narcissus hybrid,” Smith writes) and being “promoted” to handle personal housekeeping for the warden and his wife, whom he befriends. Ely’s vintage-style spreads trace the island’s outward transformation from drab to variously hued as “this gardening thing started to grow on” Michener—starting with colorful blooms that emanate from a book he reads in his cell. Though back matter eventually raises some contemporary issues around incarceration, this portrayal of Michener as a “jailbird” who grew “an honest-to-goodness green thumb” fails to interrogate its own uncontextualized portrayals around the U.S. prison system, including mentions of “riots” and “promotion” within prison labor. Ages 7–10. (Apr.)