Countdown to BREAKOUT: Seeing through middle schoolers’ eyes

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. 

Seeing through middle schoolers’ eyes

On my drive to Dannemora one day during the prison break, I ended up stopped at a roadblock in a long line of cars and trucks. Up ahead of me were a couple of school buses, and that got me thinking about how this manhunt must be affecting the kids in town.

Were the officers actually boarding the bus to ask questions? How might that affect kids who were anxious and already afraid?

I was reading lots of articles about the manhunt and talking with real kids who lived near the prison as well. One of my daughter’s figure skating friends missed the Saturday ice time one day because when she and her mom opened the door to go to the car, police standing guard on her road told them to go back inside because it wasn’t safe; the search was too close, and they were worried they might flush the inmates out of the woods and into their front yard. I saved this photo on the NPR website as a reminder of how this all felt to kids. It became the inspiration for Nora’s little brother Owen’s story, and for the tree fort on BREAKOUT’s cover.

Breakout cover image

While the manhunt was going on, kids found that their June schedules were turned upside down. Area schools cancelled outdoor activities and field trips. Some had state troopers stationed outside for several days.

I made a phone call to ask if I could visit one of those schools and talk to a 7th grade English class. I explained that I was working on a novel inspired by the manhunt, offered to share that process with the ELA students, and asked for permission to interview them about their experiences during the prison break.

The kids were amazing, as kids always are. They asked lots of questions about my writing process, and then they told me stories. They told me how the officers at the roadblock did, in fact, board their school bus to ask if anyone had seen “strangers in the woods.” One girl who was on the track team said she was frustrated because her mom wouldn’t let her outside, so she had to run on the treadmill. She hated the treadmill. One girl told me that she and her siblings had been allowed to play out in the yard that weekend, but only while their dad was standing on the porch with a shotgun. Many kids had relatives involved in the search – dads and aunts and uncles – who were corrections officers or state troopers, and they shared the fears they’d brought to school with them that day, worried about what might happen out in the woods.

Their stories helped to inspire Nora’s narrative as well as the perspectives of her classmates at Wolf Creek Middle School. My next job was making sure that Nora’s  neighborhood felt real, and tomorrow I’ll talk about the role of map-making in brainstorming the setting for a novel. But first, today’s prompt:

Your assignment: Imagine that you’re one of the kids on a school bus, stopped at a police roadblock, and an armed officer comes on the bus to ask if anyone has information about the inmates. Write a few lines about what happened and how it affected your school day.

Thanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  

Breakout cover image



2 Replies on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: Seeing through middle schoolers’ eyes

  1. So fascinating. It’s going to be so interesting to read the book with this back ground knowledge. Again, thank you for taking us through your process.