The Gardener of Alcatraz

A prisoner gardens his way to freedom in this inspiring picture-book biography.

When Elliott Michener was locked away in Alcatraz for counterfeiting, he was determined to defy the odds and bust out. But when he got a job tending the prison garden, a funny thing happened. Thoughts of escape were replaced with new interests and skills–and a sense of dignity and fulfillment. Elliott transformed Alcatraz Island, and the island transformed him.

Read about the gardens of Alcatraz here. Learn more about inmate gardeners here.

From Charlesbridge Publishing. April 5, 2022. Illustrations by Jenn Ely.

Finalist, California Young Reader Medal (a student-choice award), 2024-5, in the Picture Books for Older Readers category.

Nominee, Louisiana Readers Choice (LYRC) award (a student-choice award), 2024-2025, in the category grades 3-5.

Nominee, Towner Award (a student-choice award) for 2023-24. The Towner Award is the Washington state award for nonfiction picture books for students in grades 2-6.

STARRED REVIEW ★ “With The Gardener of Alcatraz, Smith (The Pig War) has produced a humane and moving story, and Ely (If You Were a Kid Building a Pyramid) captures the emotional nub of every scene.” –Shelf Awareness

“Superb storytelling elevates a solid story line into something more… San Francisco author Emma Bland Smith gracefully plumbs deeper themes about the dignity of work and the meaning of freedom in this beautifully rendered feel-good book.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“At the end of the book, readers will find a message from the author commenting on the prison system and injustices that exist not only in the treatment of inmates overall but also the lasting racial bias that tends to resurface. Readers are encouraged to carefully consider the realities of prison life within the context of justice and equality throughout the story. This is a thought-provoking and compelling picture book biography for elementary school-aged readers.” –Children’s Literature, a CLDC Company

Bookstagang Best Books of 2022, Biography category

Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice list for 2023, grades 3-5

“Though this is the story of one man at one notorious prison, the author subtly conveys the need for more humane treatment of all prisoners given the possibility of better outcomes for their lives post-incarceration…. The small amount of text on each page and the appealing artwork make this an engaging read. VERDICT A fascinating look at a minor historical figure, sure to inspire discussion.”-School Library Journal

Bank Street Best Books of the Year, 2023

Junior Library Guild selection