Students Ask Claire…
What was your favorite part of writing Children of Alcatraz?
I loved discovering the entire history of the island, not just the federal prison era. I was especially fascinated by the Indian Occupation and how the kids on the island were witnesses to a powerful protest.
Did the book turn out the way you wanted it to?
Yes, at first I had more information and my editor kept urging me to cut it down. I resisted, but now I am glad because all the photos really add richness to the book and invite readers in.
What do you think Alcatraz should be used for today?
Oh, I don’t think there would be any way to shut it down as a national park. It is the most visited historical site in the country. I just wish more of the funds collected for the tour and boat ride could be used to preserve the island and its historical sites. There is so much wear and tear because of 1.8 million people tromping the grounds every year.
What do the children of Alcatraz think the island should be used for?
I think that varies, depending on what era they lived there. The military and federal prison kids seem to want it to remain an historical site. I’ll bet the Indian kids would have liked it to have been set up as an Indian center or college, as proposed during the Occupation.
How do the children of Alcatraz feel about the prisoners’ escapes?
Many of the children during the federal prison era say now that they didn’t pay that much attention to the prisoners. They would see them on garbage duty around the island, but other than that they lived separate lives except on Christmas, when they sang carols outside the prison or in the early days when they watched movies on Sunday night up in the chapel on top of the prison. They watched the same show the prisoners had seen in the afternoon.
When there was an escape, the siren blasted all over the island. But usually the prisoners were found within minutes, except for the 1946 siege and the 1963 escape featured in my book. The children trusted that their fathers, the guards, could handle anything.
If you were Native American in 1969, would you go to the protest on Alcatraz?
I surely hope that I would have heard about it from my reservation or wherever I lived, and made the trip. It was a powerful experience for the over 16,000 Indians who visited during the eighteen-month protest.
Who do you think the island should belong to, the Indians or the Americans?
I believe the island now belongs to all Americans as an historical site. And I believe the Indians have always been Americans. They lived on this soil, thousands of years before the colonists arrived.
Do you think that the prisoners that escaped made it to San Francisco?
The only escaped prisoners never recovered were the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris from the 1963 escape. Prison officials and park rangers all contend that with the tides and their fitness level, the three men would not have survived. Others like to say they did. I believe that if they actually made it, the only three men to successfully escape from Alcatraz would have bragged to someone before they died. What do you think? There are many books written about the escape. Do some research and draw your own conclusion. We’ll never know for sure.
What is your favorite place on Alcatraz?
I’d have to say the parade ground on the second level, looking across the bay at San Francisco. I an imagine kids playing baseball or riding their bikes. I can pretend to be a teenager holding hands with her boyfriend who is an island kid, too, or maybe visiting from the City.
Do you know what happened to that diamond that is rumored to have been under the island?
I do not, nor whether there really was an actual diamond. It could be a symbol of the richness and value of this special island as a place of healing. I love the name Diamond Island, don’t you?
When you read your own book, do you wish you’d done anything differently?
Always. We’re not perfect human beings, so little things slip through. But this book was researched and then written over a span of seven years, so I was very thorough and I am very pleased with the final result.
Would you like to have been a kid on Alcatraz? If so, during what era?
What a great question! Absolutely. in any of the eras, I’m not picky. Such an amazing place to live. Author Beverly Cleary says, “Give yourself the gift in writing, what you don’t have in your own life.” I had a great childhood in Spokane, but got to be a kid on Alcatraz by writing their fascinating stories.
Did the children of inmates ever visit?
No, the warden thought it was too dangerous, even though kids lived on the island . . . only one I featured in the book was able to – see page 35 Mark Sobell. He hated going there.
Why did you choose to write this book?
I just couldn’t believe that kids would be part of a place that I thought was so scarey. Turns out it wasn’t.
What were the ups and downs of writing this book?
Will anyone want to read it, I wondered while writing it. Would an editor be willing to publish it? Later some people got hurt that they weren’t featured in the book. Hundreds lived there and I couldn’t mention them all in the book.
What was the coolest fact that you discovered?
That the protest of the American Indians helped change the law. President Nixon ended the law that was forcing Indians to be moved off the reservations and into cities. This might not seem cool. But at my age, the knowledge that protests can make a difference is way cool.
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