Leah Pileggi

Leah Pileggi is a writer and traveler living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published several articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Hopscotch magazine. Inspired by a ten-year-old boy who served time in the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary, Prisoner 88 tells the story of a courageous boy who faces danger and finds friendship under the most unusual circumstances. Pileggi’s other book, How to Design a World-Class Engineering College: A History of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was published by UPNE in 2014.


In this episode, Arlan interviews Leah about her book, Prisoner 88. The middle grade book fictionalizes the real life of James Oscar Baker, a 10-year-old boy sentenced to the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary in 1855 after killing a man who attacked his father in a bar fight.  

Told from the point of view of 10-year-old Jake Oliver Evans, a stand-in for Baker, the book follows Evans’ experience growing up and surviving within a prison in America’s Old West after shooting and killing a man who threatened his father. 

Pileggi learned of Baker during a tour of the prison, and while most of the people on the tour appeared to write off the story as simply interesting, Pileggi, who had just started learning more about writing for children, felt drawn to the story. With the help of the Idaho Historical Society, she was able to access files from the prison and research Baker for the book. 

In this episode Pileggi discusses: 

  • How she discovered Jake and what drew her to the boy’s story
  • Her experience getting a hold of the information
  • How much of the book is based in facts
  • How deep she goes into her research
  • Who was the intended audience and who’s actually reading it
  • The boy’s life after he was released from prison
  • The recent and current projects she is working on

Mentioned This Episode


2:57 – “I had been writing and studying children’s literature maybe for a year or so before that and I thought, “oh my gosh, I have to read that book. How interesting would that be.” – Leah Pileggi

6:59: “I didn’t know I loved history this much until this project came along.” – Leah Peliggi

City Books elsewhere:

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