All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor, 2016
Children’s novel for grades 5 and up; realistic fiction, mystery
The Blue River Correctional Facility is the only home that eleven-year-old Perry Cook has ever known. His mother Jessica is a “resident” there, incarcerated for manslaughter that happened before Perry was born. Although Jessica is eager for her release, Perry is content with his home in the prison. But everything changes when the district attorney hears about Perry’s living situation. The district attorney is Thomas VanLeer, who is also the stepfather of Perry’s best friend “on the outside”, his classmate Zoey Samuels. Although Perry’s situation is common knowledge in the small town of Surprise, Nebraska, Mr. VanLeer is new in the county and hadn’t heard about it until Zoey brings it up at the dinner table. But now, he has taken it upon himself to act as a foster parent to Perry. Not only is Perry’s life disrupted, but the prison warden is suspended for allowing Perry’s unorthodox upbringing and Jessica’s parole hearing is postponed. Meanwhile, Perry is starting a school assignment that leads him to interview Blue River’s residents, including his mother. Between those conversations, a couple coincidences, and a little snooping, Perry gradually pieces together the story of the accidental death that put his mother in prison.
I don’t know enough about the justice system and prison life to give a fair assessment of how believable the setup is. My guess is that it would be absolutely unthinkable for a child to live in a prison for eleven years before being discovered and put into foster care, and that more than a couple people would get in trouble for the situation. But aside from the unrealistic scenario, it’s hard to find much of any fault with this book. All right, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people out there who consider it objectionable for its discussion of crime, its portrayal of convicted criminals as good people, some discussion of death and injury, and the fact that Jessica was an unmarried teen mom. Frankly, I don’t think that any of those things make this book inappropriate for middle schoolers. In fact, I think that it’s a positive thing for young readers to encounter tough subjects through literature before they have to face them in the real world. For an eleven- or twelve- year old whose life hasn’t been touched by the issues faced by Perry and his mom, this is an eye-opening book that will build understanding and empathy. For a child who can relate to parts of Perry’s story, it will be refreshing and reassuring to see these subjects touched in children’s literature.
Despite my overall high opinion of the book, I feel compelled to add that I didn’t find Perry to be a particularly believable character. He’s almost too wise beyond his years, too mild-mannered, too innocent and pure-hearted. I don’t mind that too much, though. The other characters—with the one exception of Thomas VanLeer—acknowledge and praise Perry’s demeanor and unusually perfect personality, and there is an implication throughout the book that his experiences being raised in a prison are what made him that way. Besides, there is noticeable character development in the sense that Perry becomes more outspoken and develops a more complicated sense of morality over the course of the book. His love for his mother, and his desires to spend time with her and seek justice for her, make him willing to disrespect VanLeer and bend rules at school. In fact, I think that the ambiguity of morality is one of the big messages of this book. Is Perry a better person when he’s behaving exactly as the adults tell him and ignoring classmates’ taunts, or when he’s bending rules? Is Jessica committing a crime or protecting a loved one by lying about what really happened on the night of her arrest? Does Warren Daughtery deserve to lose her job for allowing an incarcerated woman to raise her own son, or does she deserve to be commended for caring for Perry and Jessica the way she does? Are any of the terrible things VanLeer does actually morally wrong? And are people in jail really that much worse than those of us “on the outside”?