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The Most Beautiful Garden is What Blooms Inside

The Gardener of Alcatraz, a True Story written by Emma Bland Smith and illustrated by Jenn Ely, published by Charlesbridge.


Emma Bland Smith incorporates strong voice and narrative skill in this transformative, true-life story.


It starts like this:


"The boat chugged out of San Francisco and into the bay. Sound nice? It wasn’t. This was no pleasure outing, let me tell you."


Another favorite line:


"Because, see, it just so happened that the big bosses on

Alcatraz were looking for an inmate to help with the gardens..."


Readers will believe a former ganster is sitting down talking straight to them.


When prisoner #AZ-578 gets into his cell on Alcatraz, the toughest prison in the country, all he wants to do is to escape. And he's smart! So, if anyone could...


Despite his scheming, he's given an opportunity to work in the garden. Perfect, he thinks he'll be able to plan some sort of escape with this little extra freedom. But, he starts to really enjoy gardening, adding beauty and color to the dreariness of prison life. Not only do the grounds transform, but so does he.


A combination of gouache and digital, Jenn Ely's illustrations reinforce the storyline by progressing from gray tones to a vibrant palette. The pages become more colorful as the reader witnesses the prisoner's transformation from criminal to the honorable citizen Elliot Michener always was, deep down inside. He just needed an opportunity to bloom.


Back matter includes a timeline, historical summary, author's note and bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The information provides more details about Michener's life, the time period, the prison system and reform efforts, prison gardens, and Native occupation.


Imagine It!


Working in the gardens of Alcartraz gave Elliot something interesting to do. It turned dreary prison life into less dreary ones (prison is never a really fun place to be). And, it turned him from a life of crime to a life of honesty and happiness.


Imagine adding some color and cheer somewhere that could use it.


Is there a corner of your back yard or an indoor pot where you might be able to grow some flowers?


Is there a park in your community that could use some extra care? Maybe you, your friends, and some grown-ups could plan a "pick up trash" day.


Do you have a friend or neighbor who could use some help? Sometimes planting a seed looks like lending a hand, bringing over cookies, or just sitting on the porch with someone.


There are many ways to help the world and each other bloom into our best selves.


Just imagine the possibilities...



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