Eleven-year-old Perry thinks life is pretty good. True, he’s lived all his life at the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility, the minimum-security prison where his mother, Jessica, is incarcerated. He knows that it hasn’t been easy for his mother, and he eagerly looks forward to the day she gets parole. But Perry himself is able to go to school off the premises. And when he’s home, he’s content with his surroundings and the ragtag bunch of inmates who have helped care for him since he was a baby.
But not everyone agrees with Perry’s assessment. When word of his living situation reaches an overzealous new district attorney, Thomas VanLeer, Perry is yanked out of Blue River and made to live with VanLeer and his family. His time with his mother and the other inmates he cares about is now severely limited. Worse, his mother’s parole may be in danger. It’s up to Perry to find a way to advocate for himself and his mother and their dream of one day having their own home.
In “All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook,” Leslie Connor presents an unusual situation with grace and compassion. Her young hero is thoroughly admirable. In the midst of difficult circumstances — and his time away from his mother is far more difficult for him than his time in the prison ever was — he shows strength, spirit, and a determination to focus on the positive and keep hoping. Also, he tries hard to show respect to Attorney General VanLeer, even when he doesn’t feel like it.
Life at Blue River may seem a little idealized in some ways: The residents are generally nice people, if rather quirky, and have more freedom than at most prisons. It makes sense, though, as the facility is a minimum-security prison, and no one is there for any crime more serious than manslaughter. It’s true that, as Perry discovers when he digs deeper for a school assignment, there’s more to his mother’s story than she has told him. But she, like most other adults in the story, is a well-rounded, largely positive character.
An exception is Attorney General VanLeer, who manages to be idealistic, unkind, and petty all at once. Though Connor tries to make him a well-rounded character as well, it doesn’t quite come off. It’s hard to stay focused on how he’s a loving husband and stepfather and a hard worker, when he’s deliberately making life hard for Perry and Jessica for no other reason but that they were allowed to stay together at Blue River — which was a decision made by the warden, not by Jessica herself. VanLeer experiences a little redemption at the end, but in my view, it’s not wholly convincing. However, he does serve as a good illustration of how well-intentioned bureaucrats can make people’s lives a nightmare.
As far as content issues, there aren’t many to worry about. Some of the residents describe their crimes, but not in graphic or disturbing terms. There are a few profanities scattered here and there, and Jessica tells Perry that she was not married, but hoping to move in with her boyfriend, when she got pregnant with him as a teenager. Also, there’s some tension in VanLeer’s family when his wife and daughter oppose his treatment of Perry and Jessica, and he refuses to heed their advice.
The few instances of troubling behavior in the book, though, are more than outweighed by the good ones. This is a book about hope, friendship, and second chances, a book that many young readers will find inspiring.