Saturday, September 5, 2009

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Biblio Bits Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, Putnam Juvenile, 2004 (ISBN 9780399238611)

Reading Level/Interest Age 10-12

Genre Realistic fiction, historical fiction

Plot Summary
Moose and his family move to Alcatraz Island so his dad can work at the prison, but also so that they will be close to San Francisco and a special school for his sister to attend. Moose's sister Natalie has symptoms of autism (though no one calls it that back then) and his mother hopes that Natalie will be accepted into the school that could make a difference in Natalie's condition. Meanwhile, Moose adjusts to a new home on the island that houses the famous prison in which Al Capone served time. There are several other families with children on the island, and Moose quickly learns that the warden's daughter, Piper, has a lot of ideas that could land them in trouble. When his mom takes a job teaching piano lessons in the city, it means that Moose has to look after Natalie in the afternoons after school (treating her "like a regular sister"); not only does this inhibit his ability to play baseball with his school mates, but it also means that Moose and Natalie develop a deeper relationship.

Critical Evaluation
Moose narrates with a vivid and funny voice; readers can sense he is a "real" boy, one who likes baseball, is just deciphering the boy/girl thing, and has family obligations that sometimes feel like a burden to him. The characters are realistic (particularly the kids and how they relate to each other), with many humorous exchanges and believable dialogue. The story is engaging and captivating, particularly with the dramatic tension that Piper's character introduces. Additionally, towards the middle and end of the book, tension builds again when Moose spots his sister holding hands with an inmate (when Moose was supposed to be watching her). The heartwarming conclusion has a twist that leaves a reader wondering about what really happened. Though set in the 1930s, it's clear that the concerns for 12 year-old boys have not changed much.

Reader's Annotation
Not everyone goes to Alcatraz because they are a high-profile criminal like Al Capone; Moose moves there with his family so his dad can work at the prison. But when Moose meets the Warden's daughter, he knows that not all the trouble-makers are behind bars.

Author Information
Award-winning children's author Gennifer Choldenko has written several titles for children and young adults. She studied art at Rhode Island School of Design and began in a career of graphic design and illustration. Choldenko grew up in a large family, including one sister with symptoms of autism, after whom Natalie's character is based (in the Notes section of the book). Choldenko resides in California with her husband and two children. (Author biographical details, except where noted, are from the Bloomsbury Publishing website.)

Challenge issues
One potential challenge could be the uncertainty that surrounds Natalie's contact with the convict. All that Moose witnesses is Natalie holding hands with him, but he fears that it could have been (or might have been) more sinister. This reference might upset younger readers or their parents.

Booktalking Ideas
This title would be a good one to include in a booktalk on families that include people with special needs or how people with special needs have been viewed and treated in history. It could also go in a historical fiction booktalk or booktalk based on 1st-person narratives.

Curriculum Ties
Life in the 1930s would be a good one, since the focus of this book is not the big issues like the Great Depression, but more about the lives of regular people and the things they did and thought about. It would be a natural choice for a unit on people with special needs and how they have been viewed through history (mentioned above also).

Why this book?
With Moose's engaging narration, a plot that flows and moves along, while developing believable characters, and humor, this book is a natural selection for readers looking for a good historical fiction novel (though the history is not necessarily the main event here). Fans of The Schwa Was Here (Shusterman) might also enjoy this book, for the similar tone and humor, pace, friendships that are developed, and obstacles that are overcome.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes is due out in fall 2009, according to a Publisher's Weekly interview.

Newbery Honor 2005, School Library Journal 2004, ALA Notable Books 2005

Rockport Public Library owns?

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