Ruby’s mom is in prison, and to tell anyone the truth is to risk true friendship in this novel from the author of The Summer Before Boys that accurately and sensitively addresses a subject too often overlooked.
Eleven-year-old Ruby Danes is about to start middle school, and only her aunt knows her deepest, darkest, most secret secret: her mother is in prison.
Then Margalit Tipps moves into Ruby’s condo complex, and the two immediately hit it off. Ruby thinks she’s found her first true-blue friend—but can she tell Margalit the truth about her mom? Maybe not. Because it turns out that Margalit’s family history seems closely connected to the very event that put her mother in prison, and if Ruby comes clean, she could lose everything she cares about most.
It’s all she’s known her whole life, Matoo explains to her friends on the phone when she thinks I can’t hear her. “Ruby doesn’t remember anything different, so for her it’s normal,” she says about me.
But Matoo is wrong.
My dog, Loulou, might not know what it’s like to walk off a leash, to walk free and choose where she wants to stop and smell and when she’s done, and then decide for herself to mosey over to the next interesting spot and sniff, or not. She might not have any memory of running around outside without a collar around her neck. But that doesn’t mean she likes it this way.
You can not know any better and still know you don’t like something.
“C’mon, both of you,” Matoo says to me and Loulou. “We’ve got to get back inside. It’s so hot out here and I should start dinner.”
I hate to do it, but I tug on Loulou’s collar so she knows it’s time to go in. She lifts her head and looks at me, because I am the one holding the other end of this leash. I am the one who can make her come when I want to, and she knows it. I’ll never know what she’s really thinking or what she smells in the grass, or those leaves, or the side of the building, but I can tell she doesn’t want to go inside yet and I feel guilty making her.
Except it is hot out here, I do agree. And I am pretty hungry, come to think of it, so I give her little yank.
Loulou is straining her head toward some tuft of grass, locking her hind legs and gripping her claws into the ground so she can get one last, good inhale.
“Let’s go, Loulou. There’s nothing there,” I say.
Nothing that I can see anyway.
But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. And just because you don’t remember something doesn’t mean you don’t miss it. And just because you are used to something doesn’t mean it’s normal. So I give Loulou a little more time to sniff around and I know she appreciates it.
When I was little, I didn’t understand. Every time we visited my mother in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, I expected she was coming home with us.
“Not this time,” my mother said. “But I’ll be home soon. I promise. Soon.”
So, I thought, next time. Next time is long enough to be soon. But each time, my mother said again, “Not yet. Not this time, sweetheart. But soon, I promise. Don’t forget I love you. I will always be here for you. I will always be your mother.”
I didn’t know why she was saying that. Of course she was my mother. I just wanted her to come home already.
So maybe this visit was “soon” or maybe this was the time we would all walk out together. If not this week, then next, or the next. Or the next. After a while, Matoo started warning me before we even got inside, but I still didn’t get it. We pulled into the parking lot, which looked pretty much like any other parking lot—if you didn’t look up at the barbed wire—like a parking lot at the A&P and the one at the Petco and the one at the Home Depot.
Matoo said, “Ruby, Don’t keep asking your mother when she’s coming home. It’s not nice.”
I didn’t understand.
How can wanting your mother to come home be not nice?
I wanted to hurry inside but a long line was forming by the visitors’ trailer. My heart started beating faster, which is something my heart does whenever I am anxious about something, and right then, I was in a hurry about to get inside to see my mother. I tried reasoning with my own thoughts, to calm me down. Talking to myself.
It’s okay. The line will move. No matter how long it takes. You will get to the front. No one will stop you from seeing your mom. And no matter how long it takes, she’ll be waiting for you.
So my mind was talking, but my body did something totally on its own accord as if it was not listening at all. My heart started pounding harder. And then it was hard to breathe. The harder it was to breathe, the more my heart started to worry and beat faster, until finally I was wheezing and barely sucking in air, and my chest hurt. I reached up and took Matoo’s hand, and at the same time, I willed my heart to slow and slowly the air made its way back into my lungs.
Finally, Matoo and I made it to the front of the line and inside the trailer, where there were seats, and even some old toys and books and all these posters on the walls with all sorts of encouraging sayings. Of course, I didn’t call her Matoo back then. She was still Aunt Barbara. The line of people moved a little faster in here, and finally we made it inside.
We put all our belongings in a locker, showed our IDs. But we still had to go through all the security: the metal detectors, the wand search, the hand stamp, the gated doors, the big black bars, the hand stamp check, the sign-in, more bars, and finally we got to the visitors’ room where we were assigned to a table.
That was hardest part. Waiting. Waiting again, with my heart threatening to start pounding again and my feet jittering. Sitting at our table with the big number twenty-eight marked on the top, watching everyone around us talking, laughing, hugging their mom, or sister, or daughter, while I was still waiting.
Matoo started to say something. “Ruby—”
She was going to warn me again. To be nice. Not to keep asking my mother when she was coming home.
“I know. I know,” I said, because I wasn’t listening to her. Because I had a plan.
“That’s rude, Ruby. I am talking to you,” Matoo said.
I sat up straight and listened, all the while going over my strategy silently in my head. I might have only been five or six at the time, but I was getting very good at living inside and outside my head at the same time.
Matoo was talking, but I could see the correctional officer sitting at her desk, way high up, at the front of the long visitors’ room.
Some kids from a long time ago must have drawn that colorful picture they have covering her really tall desk, so the picture looked all friendly, but that woman sitting there was the boss of this room and everyone in it. She was the one who told everyone where to sit. And she was the one who asked people to leave when they were getting too loud or fighting. She was the one who told people when their time was up because other visitors needed to come in. And everyone did what she said, so I knew she was most certainly the one to ask.
She was the key player in my plan.
“Are you sure you are listening to me, Ruby?” Matoo went on.
I nodded. I folded my hands the way they taught me in kindergarten and waited.
I don’t actually remember much of that visit except for the very end, when it was time to leave and my mother got that sad look on her face and I got that horrible stomachache. We had moved from the table into the children’s center by that time—a little area that looks just like a nursery school, separated from the rest of the visitors’ room by a wall of windows. Just before we were about to leave, I jumped up, pulled open the doors, and headed right for the big, tall platform where the officer in charge was sitting. Sometimes she came down from her post and walked around, but right then, she was sitting at her desk working on something, something I couldn’t see because it was too tall. And she looked down at me.
“Please,” I said. “Please, can I take my mommy home with me today? Please, I know it’s been soon.”
I talked as fast as I could, before Matoo could catch up to me, before anyone could stop me.
I went on, “I know because every time we come here, it’s sooner, and now I want to take my mommy home with me. Please, can you tell my mommy it’s soon now? Please, can you let my mommy come home with me today?”
“Whose child is this?” the correctional officer said. She looked as sad I was.
“Please, please,” I cried. “I really want my mommy.”
Then Matoo was there, pulling me back, trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand. She was right next to me, but my mother was not. My mother stayed back at the table, because she wasn’t allowed this close to the exit door. It was like there was something keeping her away from me, something invisible that only she could see. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Because there was something about that place that made you just know that someone could stop you from doing whatever it was you were doing, at any moment, for any reason whatsoever. In this place, you couldn’t go where you wanted to go. And you couldn’t be where you wanted to be, until finally you stopped thinking it was possible.
1. What did you learn in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments that helped you think about how real world experiences shape the fictional world that Ruby inhabits?
2. The cover art for this book reflects the title and Ruby’s life circumstances. Think about the cover art. Why are there silhouettes of two children holding hands and walking a dog? What did the little dog symbol make you think about when you came to each new chapter in the book?
3. Nora Raleigh Baskin has done a lot of careful and caring research for this book. She presents many details about being a visitor to the prison. What kinds of controls are exerted in the prison for visitors? What are the procedures for gaining admittance to the prison? How do you think you would feel if you were visiting a prison? What would it be like to have so many logistics—so many steps that have to be taken before you could see your family member or friend?
4. There is no privacy in prison. What impact does the lack of privacy have on the prisoners? How would you feel if you lost all ability to have private moments? How does the treatment of visitors and prisoners dehumanize them?
5. If you were a relative of a child in need of a home, could you—or would you—be willing and able to take that child in? Could you offer love and act as an additional parent? Does Ruby love and respect Matoo?
6. Friendship is very important in the story. How does Ruby relate to others her own age? What is it about Margalit’s personality that captures Ruby’s attention? What intrigues Ruby the most about Margalit’s behavior? About Kristin? Tevin? Rebecca? Trevor?
7. Why does Ruby pretend to be bored when she isn’t? Do you ever try to act like another person or behave in a way that will please someone else? What impact does trying to please another person have on Ruby’s mother’s life?
8. When Ruby says that the name Tipps sounds familiar, do you have a sense that her inside world and her outside world are about to collide? Does it seem too far-fetched that Margalit’s brother would have the same first and last name as the boy who was murdered in the pharmacy?
9. We don’t learn Ruby’s mother’s name until about a quarter way through the book when Matoo calls her Janis. Did you feel surprised to learn her name? Do you think the author did that for an emotional effect? Why does Nick get a lesser sentence than Janis? Does that seem unbelievably unfair? Realistic? Why do some people involved in a crime go to prison and others don’t?
10. Are there any ways that life in middle school is like a prison? How does the incident in school with Ruby and the pencil confirm that life is not fair? How is detention like a prison?
11. What messages or advice does Ruby get from her mother about how to live her life?
12. Was it irresponsible of Ruby’s mother to leave her alone? Where is Ruby’s father? We learn of Ruby’s mother’s situation growing up. How does that help to explain how she behaves as an adult?
13. Why does Ruby write (in the story she is creating with Margalit) that her mother died? How does Margalit react? Do you as a reader think less of Ruby because she denies her mother? Why do Margalit and Ruby title their story “To be continued”?
14. How does Margalit react when Ruby tells her that her mom is in prison? How does Kristin react?
15. The last word of the novel is normal? Why is normal so important to Ruby?
16. What is the “so what” of Ruby on the Outside? (Refer to “That’s an interesting series of events, but so what? Chapter 12, p. 76)
17. How did you feel when you read this sentence: “When my mother is released from prison I will be thirty-one years old”?
This guide has been provided by the author for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. Guide written by Robin Millay M.Ed.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the ALA Schneider Family Book Award–winning author of Anything But Typical. She was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for her novel What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, and has since written a number of novels for middle graders and teens, including The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah, The Summer Before Boys, and Ruby on the Outside. Nora lives with her family in Connecticut. Visit her at NoraBaskin.com.