Thursday, October 29, 2009

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Title: Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
ISBN: 0469674328, Scholastic, 2004
Genre: Young Adult
Rating: A

First Line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.

It's 1935. Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan has just moved to Alcatraz with his family, and he's not happy about it. Not one little bit:

The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want. I never knew prisons could be picky, but I guess they can. You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you're me. I came here because my mother said I had to.

Moose's sister is autistic, and his mother's life revolves around the girl. They've moved to Alcatraz because his father got a better-paying job there that would allow them to send Natalie to a special school-- if they can get her accepted there.

Moose is a typical boy. He doesn't care all that much for school, and he loves playing baseball. Once they've moved to Alcatraz, Moose finds that his father is so busy picking up extra hours (and extra money) that he's too exhausted to spend time with his son. His mother has to take the boat to San Francisco every day so she can earn money needed for Natalie's schooling. Just as Moose begins to fit in with the other children on the island, Mrs. Flanagan's work hours increase, and Moose has to make sacrifices in order to take care of Natalie.

As I read this book, my heart bled for Moose. Everything in the Flanagan household revolved around Natalie and her needs. Natalie, Natalie, Natalie. No one paid attention to Moose unless he questioned the grown-ups' protocol, and then he got the kind of attention no child wants.

Choldenko's book is well-written and flows smoothly. I felt as though I were on Alcatraz during the Depression. The kids living on the island were kids: the warden's daughter was an up-and-coming con artist with her schemes to bring in some money; Moose's baseball playing buddies didn't hit a false note as they got used to their new player; and a six-year-old's explanation as to why a pregnant woman on the island needed to stay off her feet had me spluttering and cleaning tea off my monitor.

The most gratifying part of reading Al Capone Does My Shirts is the way Moose interacted with everyone and the way he began to grow up and see things through other people's eyes. Living with an autistic child is dealt with honestly, in part due to the fact that the author's sister was diagnosed with autism.

This is a book that both children and adults can enjoy. The period detail hits all the right notes, the pacing is sure and never flags, and the story is involving from first page to last. Choldenko's skill brings all these characters to life-- you commiserate with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and even try to solve their problems with them. Moose, Natalie and everyone else are real, and that's one of the best compliments I can give any author.

I've just heard about Choldenko's Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Anyone want to bet on whether or not I'll read it?

[Source: Paperback Swap.]


  1. Poor Moose, my heart goes out to him. I can't imagine living in Alcatraz and moving there as a young boy leaving friends behind and things. That's a tough situation. This sounds like a great book. I'm interested in seeing how living with an autistic sister informs how Moose relates to other people as ghe grows up.
    Great review!

  2. Today was the first I heard of these books. Man, not the life I would want. Sounds like a tough sacrifice for one's sister, especially when you have no choice.

  3. This book sounds so good! I imagine there are a lot of kids out there like Moose - they feel neglected because of a special need sibling - who can really relate to this book.

  4. Amy-- Thanks. Moose is such a wonderful character. I'm looking forward to reading the next book to see how he changes.

    Beth-- It was interesting to see how he dealt with it because basically he's a good kid at heart.

    Kathy-- What's good about the book is that it's not just Moose who undergoes a change in the book; the parents realize what they've been doing and do a bit of changing themselves.

  5. I'd pick up the book because of the title, thinking it might be a crime novel. But, your summary is even better. I like family stories told from the kid's perspective. This one sounds good.

  6. I live the title; it's catchy and a good hook. But I feel really sorry for Moose as well. Imagine living amidst convicts in Alcatraz!

  7. This book sounds really interesting, and like it fills a gap. I don't remember seeing many books about kids who have a special needs sibling, but maybe I just haven't been paying attention.

  8. Margot JR-- It is good. Moose is a good kid without being obnoxiously perfect.

    Hazra-- According to the book, the prisoners were kept well away from the children living there, thank heavens!

    Kim-- I know I haven't been paying attention, so I can't have any sort of informed opinion about it (other than the fact that it's good).


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