'Ruby on the Outside' takes a sensitive look at a child dealing with her mother's incarceration

This lovely story about a girl coping with her mother's prison sentence will speak to anyone who's ever felt on the outside looking in.

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers 176 pp.

Eleven-year-old Ruby Danes hovers on the fringes of her life. It’s not that she’s waiting to be let in. Rather, she’s waiting for her mother to be let out.

For as long as she can remember, Ruby’s life has been circumscribed by her mother’s incarceration. The fact that she can’t give her mom a call whenever she wants to is a constant ache. Also painful: the visiting hours at the prison, which never seem long enough. But what Ruby misses most of all are the everyday things that other kids take for granted. Even a simple request – get your mother to sign this – functions as a reminder that as long as her mother is locked up, Ruby is an outsider.

Although Ruby on the Outside is, on its surface, a story about the prison system’s effects on children, there’s more to this insightful book than that. In Ruby, author Nora Raleigh Baskin has given readers a protagonist they can empathize with. Anyone who’s felt the sting of looking in at a life they long for, but can’t quite reach, will relate to Ruby’s journey.

We meet Ruby on the cusp of that journey – at the beginning of a summer that will challenge and change her. At the center of that change is a new friend, Margalit – an artistic free spirit, who awakens in Ruby a love for storytelling, and whose warmth draws Ruby out.

Still, an invisible divide lies between the two girls. Ruby’s never told anyone her giant secret, never admitted to a single friend that her mother is behind bars. And when a tragedy from Margalit’s past surfaces, with a worrisome connection to Ruby’s mother’s crime, Ruby finds herself thrust again to the outside, wondering if she’ll ever find that safe space where she can let someone in.

Baskin is no stranger to novels that deal with tough subjects. In her 2011 book, "The Summer Before Boys," she tackled the impact of a parent’s deployment on a pre-teen girl. Although stories like these could quickly veer into the mawkish or heavy-handed, Baskin’s don’t. Her writing is tender, but not overly sentimental. And her craftsmanship allows the narrative to remain firmly centered on her characters, rather than the hot-button issues that might otherwise define them.

Perhaps most noteworthy is Baskin’s deft handling of the prison thread itself. Although we catch glimpses of Ruby in this setting – scenes which can be wrenching in their emotional honesty – these portions of the story are balanced by the sweet ordinariness of Ruby’s summer routine. An old-school, bare-bones day camp. Play dates with Margalit. Walking her dog Loulou at dusk. Fans of Jeanne Birdsall’s "Penderwicks" series are sure to appreciate another contemporary summer story with a decidedly old-fashioned flair.

What I appreciated in particular about this gem of a novel is the connection Baskin makes between creativity and healing. It’s not that writing proves to be the cure-all for Ruby’s issues. But it does give her the tools to start sorting through them – and to open up to her new friend, while still feeling safe.

The gentle realization at the end of this story is that Ruby does have what she needs to fully embrace the goodness that surrounds her. Encircled by the love of family and friends, and anchored by the artistic process, Ruby is no longer on the outside, but indeed held in the very heart of life.

Jenny Sawyer is co-founder of the educational website www.60secondrecap.com and writes frequently about children's literature.

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