Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

Book Review of 
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Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

2005 Newbery Honor Book
New York Times Best Seller

In 1935, twelve year old Moose and his family move to Alcatraz Island where his father has taken a job as an electrician. They have moved there to be closer to a special school for Moose's sister, Natalie, who has special needs. Moose is forced to get along with the children on the tiny prison island, including the warden's snotty daughter Piper, who is troublesome and used to getting her way. In addition, Moose is forced to take on the responsibility of caring for his sister every day after school and his mom and dad try to make ends meet working multiple jobs so that they can afford to send Natalie to a school they think may help her fit into society.
Choldenko, G. (2004). Al Capone does my shirts. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Although this book's setting is historic in time and place, it is not slow or bogged down with historic details which can turn some readers (especially young readers) off of historic literature. In addition, the setting-- on Alcatraz in the 1930s, with one of the most legendary criminals in recent American history-- is one that may draw in those reluctant to read historical fiction. Moose is a relate-able character who is forced to grow up too fast because of his sister's mental condition-- she is autistic, and in 1935 there are limited options for his sister Natalie. Although Natalie is actually older than he is (she's 15 but their mother tells everyone she is 10 because of the way she acts), Moose is forced to take care of her, which keeps him from playing baseball after school with friends, and prevents him from feeling like he fits in. He is constantly torn between wanting to be free of his responsibilities and wanting the best thing for Natalie, which ultimately wins out every time. Although this book has serious undertones, it remains humorous throughout, and is a fast and interesting read. Moose is a well-developed character, and the problems he faces-- balancing responsibility with a need for freedom and the ability to act as a kid, make him interesting and his situations realistic.

Professional Reviews:  

"In 1935, notorious gangster Al Capone is one of three hundred convicts housed in the maximum-security penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan also lives on the island. His father has taken a position as an electrician and guard at the prison in hopes that Moose's sister, Natalie, will be accepted at a special school in nearby San Francisco. Not only has Moose been forced to leave friends behind and move with his family to a fortress island, but he also cannot play baseball or make new friends now because he is stuck taking care of his sister whenever he is not in school. Natalie is afflicted with the condition now known as autism, and even at age sixteen, she cannot be left unsupervised. Everyone in the family has been under a strain because of Natalie's special needs. Meanwhile Piper, the warden's pretty, spoiled daughter, makes life complicated for Moose. The island's residents have their laundry done by the convicts, and thrill-seeking Piper drags Moose into her wild stunt of marketing Al Capone's laundry services to their middle school classmates in San Francisco. But when his family desperately needs a break in their efforts to get help for Natalie, Moose knows that only Piper has the connections and the audacity to help him pull off a reckless scheme involving the island's most famous inmate. Choldenko, author of Notes from a Liar and Her Dog (Putnam's, 2001/VOYA August 2001), weaves three As-Alcatraz, Al Capone, and autism-into an excellent historical novel for middle-grade readers. A large, annotated 1935 photograph of Alcatraz Island and an informative author's note give substance to the novel's factual sources."
Hogan, W. (2004, April 1). [Review of the book Al Capone does my shirts, by G. Choldenko]. Voices of Youth Advocacy Reviews. Retrieved from
"Moose’s world is turned upside down when his family moves to Alcatraz Island where his Dad has taken a job as a prison guard. Super-responsible Moose, big for 12, finds himself caught in the social interactions of this odd cut-off world. He cares for his sister who is older, yet acts much younger due to her autism and he finds his life alternating between frustration and growth. His mother focuses all of her attention on ways to cure the sister; his dad works two jobs and meekly accepts the mother’s choices; his fellow island-dwellers are a funny mix of oddball characters and good friends. Basing her story on the actual experience of those who supported the prison in the ’30s—when Al Capone was an inmate—Choldenko’s pacing is exquisite, balancing the tense family dynamics alongside the often-humorous and riveting school story of peer pressure and friendship. Fascinating setting as a metaphor for Moose’s own imprisonment and enabling some hysterically funny scenes, but a great read no matter where it takes place. (lengthy author’s note with footnotes to sources) (Fiction. 11-14)."
 [Review of the book Al Capone does my shirts, by G. Choldenko]. (2004, March 1). Kirkus' Reviews. Retrieved from

Other Uses:

In this book, Moose writes a letter to Al Capone asking him to help his sister get into the special school. Have young adults write a letter to an historical figure and have them relate it to something about that person. If you want to get really spiffy, have a letter exchange where one teen writes a letter to an historical figure, and another person must answer it.

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