Please meet Leah Pileggi, who clearly shares my passion for historical fiction. I was completely taken with Prisoner 88 when I picked up the ARC (advanced reading copy) at ALA midwinter and planned to write a review when it hit me to simply see if Leah might like to talk about her own book. I emailed her and she said yes! To my knowledge, Leah is my first guest author or illustrator who's written a song. Check it out here. Take it away, Leah!
How do you come up with ideas? What’s your inspiration? Every writer has been asked some version of those questions. For me, ideas are easy because I’m interested in pretty much everything. But when I stumbled onto the inspiration for my middle-grade novel, Prisoner 88, that story grabbed me by my gut and never let go.
On a weekday afternoon in June of 2007, I had three hours to explore Boise, Idaho. My husband was at a meeting at a technology company, the reason for our quick trip from Pennsylvania, and I didn’t have any idea what to see in those three hours. A local paper in the lobby of our hotel said something about touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary. I love old architecture, so off I went.
I parked in a dirt lot. With the sun beating down on my head, I ran toward the white sandstone building that was the entrance to the Old Pen, closed as a prison since 1972. As I rushed in the door, the woman selling tickets said, “The tour just left. You can catch up.” Out another door and into the blinding sun, I found a group of fifteen somewhat wilted folks listening to the docent. I looked around at the cluster of buildings of what had been the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary, built in stages beginning in 1872. Some buildings remained intact, frozen in time. A few were only shells, at least one with signs of a long-ago fire. I searched for a sliver of shade. I thought, imagine having to live in a place like this.
The group straggled along. We heard about hand-made weapons and looked out at the hill where local folks gathered to watch hangings. A few people left in search of air conditioning. The inmates did the laundry. They farmed, raised animals, even used dynamite to blast the rock for the walls of the penitentiary. A couple more people could no longer take the heat. By the end of the tour, the remaining three or four of us heard that the youngest prisoner ever held there was ten years old. He was James Oscar Baker, prisoner #88, and he served time in the 1880s for shooting a man who had threatened his father.
For a children’s writer, I had hit the mother lode. What kid wouldn’t want to know how a ten-year-old boy survived in a penitentiary? Before there was electricity.
With the help of the Idaho Historical Society, I found what remained of the records for prisoner 88. Court documents, legal letters, his intake record. What I didn’t find was an account of his life inside the Old Pen. That’s when Jake’s story was born.
Ideas and inspiration are all around. Keep your eyes and ears and heart open, and stories will find you.
We are so glad you hung in there through the blistering heat that day, Leah. I'm thinking some of that heat made its way into the story through your powerful, terse writing. Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking book about this little known slice of history.