Prisoner 88 book cover image

Prisoner 88

  • 1695

By: Leah Pileggi

"Bricks on the floor, three stone walls, and that too-tight-wove metal door. A cage. I stood up and walked the length of my cage. Six not-angry steps long and then 'bout four wide."

"You will love Jake and wish you could know him forever. Leah Pileggi is a wonder."
—Naomi Shihab Nye, author of Habibi, winner of the Jane Addams Children's Book Award

What if you were ten years old and thrown into prison with hardened criminals? That's just what happens to Jake Oliver Evans. Inspired by a true account of a prisoner in the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary in 1885, Jake's story is as affecting as it is shocking.

Convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years, Jake is taken under the wing of a young guard and the kindly warden, as well as a few fellow prisoners. He is taught to read and given a job tending hogs at a nearby farm. In prison, Jake finds a home he has never had in a place most people are desperate to leave. But when he has to make a choice about right and wrong during an explosive escape attempt, Jake jeopardizes his friendships and his security.

Debut novelist Leah Pileggi introduces a strong yet vulnerable character in an exciting and harrowing story of a child growing up on his own in America's Old West.

Listen to Leah Pileggi discuss Prisoner 88 on the Behind Gray Walls podcast.


Author & Illustrator Bios:

Leah Pileggi, author

Leah Pileggi is a writer and traveler. She has published several articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Hopscotch magazine. Prisoner 88 is her first novel. Leah lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Read more about Leah.

Awards & Honors:

  • IndieBound Kids' Next List, Autumn 2013
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award Masterlist
  • NCTE Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts
  • 2015-2016 Charlie May Simon Award Honor Book

Editorial Reviews:

Kirkus Reviews

A surprisingly affecting portrait of a 10-year-old boy in 1885 who is sentenced to five years for manslaughter and sent to the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary.

Inspired by a real incident reported in an Idaho newspaper on May 2, 1885, Pileggi convincingly creates a story of a resilient, not-really-aware-that-he's-neglected, illiterate boy with a big heart. Jake struggles to comprehend and survive a harsh prison setting that was never set up to include juveniles. And yet "I was settled in just fine," thanks in part to the kindly warden who arranges for him to work on a hog farm and take reading lessons from a fellow prisoner and to "eating a heaped-up tray of food every darned day." Told from Jake's point of view in the first person, this fast-paced, absorbing debut covers approximately nine months. Jake, aka "prisoner 88," is attacked on several occasions and, during an attempted escape of two of the prisoners, does what he thinks is right, with unforeseen consequences. He takes his job tending the hogs seriously and witnesses both the birth of a litter of piglets and a slaughter. And, against all odds, he develops a community of sorts—a young guard, the farm family, several prisoners, a cat....Mystery surrounds his own story—what happened that day in the saloon when his Pa was threatened and a gun went off, killing the owner; was an injustice done when Jake was convicted?

Young readers, including reluctant ones, will be rooting for Jake.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Ten-year-old Jake Evans has just received a five-year sentence for manslaughter; according to the justice system in the 1885 Idaho Territory, he's old enough to know right from wrong, and killing a man, even in defense of his father, is certainly the latter. Jake's first train and stagecoach rides en route to the penitentiary open his eyes to the world outside of his experience with a neglectful and indifferent father, and the full plates of food slipped under the woven metal bands of his door are more delicious and nourishing than anything he's ever encountered. The wardens and guards are at a bit of a loss on how to treat so young a convict, and as they bend rules and make up protocols to serve his unique circumstances, Jake's life improves considerably in the aftermath of his conviction. Idaho Territorial Penitentiary is no bed of roses, though: there are hardened criminals who would like to take Jake down just for the grim pleasure of it, and Jake is drawn into the turmoil of an [sic] jailbreak attempt, in which one of his advocates is killed. Pileggi closes with a note on ten-year-old James Oscar Baker, whose trial and incarceration inspired her to create a fictional backstory for the true episode. Recommend this high interest quick pick to fans of Western fiction, and especially to students who sullenly foot-drag their way through historical fiction assignments.

Book Page

Prisoner 88, Leah Pileggi’s engaging debut novel, was inspired by a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho. As Pileggi took in the sights of the "Old Pen," the docent happened to mention that the youngest prisoner incarcerated there was 10-year-old James Oscar Baker, convicted of manslaughter in the 1880s. The idea for Prisoner 88 was born.

This evocative, heartfelt story, sure to appeal to boys, is narrated by Prisoner 88 himself. Jake Oliver Evans is a boy who hasn’t had much joy—or much of anything—in his first 10 years. Sentenced to five years in prison for shooting and killing a man who threatened his father, Jake tries to look on the bright side of things. Being confined to the Old Idaho Penitentiary offers benefits he’s never had during his old life with Pa: more food than he’s ever seen at one time (and every day at that), a chance to work with hogs and the opportunity to learn to read (though, especially at first, Jake’s not so sure he cares much about his letters).

Through Jake’s eyes, young readers will get a glimpse of life in Idaho Territory in 1885. Jake’s fellow prisoners are a diverse lot, including a Chinese American and a Mormon arrested for polygamy. But Jake manages to survive, and even win the hearts of the tough men around him through his cheerful acceptance of his lot and his willingness to work.

One of the values of historical fiction is the insight it provides us into the lives of people in other times and places. Thanks to Pileggi’s skillful storytelling, young readers will be rooting for Jake to find a future—and family—of his own.

The Horn Book

"Welcome to the Idaho Penitentiary, gentlemen," booms assistant warden Mr. Norton. "Gentlemen" is a stretch, for prisoner number 88 is Jake Oliver Evans, age ten, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years for shooting a man at the Whittier Saloon in 1885. It seems that Jake did shoot the owner of the saloon, but the details are fuzzy: "They say I shot somebody, though I don't know that's what I really wanted to do. It just happened." But here he is, not so much behind bars as in a cage, with no heat, no electricity, and confined among adult offenders guilty of robbery, murder, and assault with a deadly weapon. And yet, Jake thinks, "Maybe I was in heaven instead of jail." Motherless, son of a drifter father, he now has a home and regular meals, gets to tend hogs, has a cat, and is learning to read. Based on the real-life story of James Oscar Baker (detailed in an extensive author's note), Pileggi's brief and powerful debut novel draws on newspaper articles and trial transcripts of the time, but since no records exist of Baker's day-to-day life in the Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, the novel is a masterful re-creation of what things might have been like, creating in Jake a likable and memorable protagonist who finds friends and hope in the worst of conditions.


ISBN: 978-1-58089-560-6

ISBN: 978-1-60734-534-3 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-611-1 PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 10 and up
Page count: 144
8 1/4 x 5 1/2

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