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Prison Boy

by Sharon E. McKay

Set in the slums of an unnamed country, Sharon E. McKay’s latest book tells of Pax, a young boy who lives in a downtrodden orphanage run by a formidable Englishwoman named Bell. Though they don’t have much, the children of the Pink House are better cared for than most – Bell ensures they have food, clothes, schooling, and affection. Then the country’s king declares a crackdown on foreigners, and Bell is forbidden from taking in any more children. But when a woman appears at the Pink House with a baby boy and says she will drown him if Bell does not take him in, Pax steps forward to claim the baby, whom he names Kai.

Prison Boy (Sharon E. McKay) coverMcKay follows the boys’ lives as their situation increasingly worsens. When Bell becomes ill and dies, the children are sent to a new facility. Fearing they will be separated, Pax runs away with Kai, only to end up living on the streets. He begins working for a shady character known only as Mister, who sets Pax up delivering packages. The final box turns out to hold a bomb. Seven-year-old Kai and 14-year-old Pax are charged with terrorism and taken to prison, where they are separated and Pax undergoes horrific torture, eventually dying from suspected appendicitis and never knowing what has become of his beloved ward.

Prison Boy’s greatest strengths are also, paradoxically, its weaknesses. Though McKay’s ploy of using a vague setting that marries tragic characteristics of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East allows readers to focus on the plight of Pax and Kai, the undefined sense of place diminishes the reality of the boys’ story and undermines the point that the atrocities they endure have real-world equivalents. The ending, which flashes forward to Kai as a happy 18-year-old, is a hopeful antidote to the suffering described in the preceding pages, but also feels tacked on and placating.

While McKay remains a master of presenting the hardship afflicting children around the world to young readers in a balanced and approachable manner, Prison Boy lacks the finesse of some of her earlier work.


Reviewer: Dory Cerny

Publisher: Annick Press


Price: $21.95

Page Count: 232 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1- 55451-731-2

Released: March

Issue Date: April 2015

Categories: Children and YA Fiction

Age Range: 12+