on July 26, 2004
I can hardly believe this is considered a children's book, since it is ideal for adults who can relate to their own coming-of-age experiences. Without going into excessive detail, Gennifer Choldenko manages to portray an era, adolescence and the pain of a disabled sibling in a different time with alarming accuracy.
Moose Flanagan is a 7th grader who is tall for his age. It is 1935, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Moose's father takes a job as a prison guard on Alcatraz Island. This means the whole family, including his mom and older sister, Natalie, have to live on the island, within the shadow of the prison, in an apartment building with the families of the other guards. Moose is not happy about leaving his home and friends in Santa Monica to take up residence next to a prison. The main reason for the move is so that his older sister, Natalie, can go to a special school in San Francisco. Natalie is considered different. In modern times, she would be diagnosed as Autistic, but in 1935, Autism had not been classified. Moose adjusts to life in a strange new place, stuck with the responsibility of looking after his sister, hardly seeing his parents, and getting to know the other children on the island, including the pretty and problematic Piper, the daughter of the Warden.
I read this book in one sitting. It is very well-written, and the author clearly hasn't forgotten what it is to be a child. She portrays being the responsible sibling to a handicapped sister excellently, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
on December 17, 2004
My children received this book as a gift and I decided I should read it before my 9 year old took a shot at it.
I had no idea what to expect and started without even reading the back cover. From the first page I was hooked. The writing is very well done. Its deep and meaningful but not at all self-conscious or pretentious. It hits that superb level of competence when reading becomes effortless almost as if you are watching the story unfold in real life. Still it is very accessible to grade school readers and will be a great read aloud book.
The subject matter is great for kids. Its not santized but kid appropriate. The protagonist is a young teen boy and the author really pulls off telling the story from his point of view.
A special note needs to be made that this is indeed a story told from the perspective of the younger sibling of a developmentally disabled young woman whose family is learning to deal with what we would now label autism. I found myself asking "how did the author know?" as I moved through the pages lured on by the unfolding of a story I had lived but in a much less interesting time and place.
My sister is now 38 and I am 37. I think I will keep the gift copy for myself and buy two more copies, one for each of my children. When the time is right I hope this book will help them understand why my "older sister who is younger than me" has such a special place in my life and can get away with doing things they never can.
There's historical fiction, and then there's historical fiction. Now to critique a kid's book that falls in the historical fiction genre there's really only one standard to which you should hold the book directly accountable: Do accurate historical facts about the story make the book more interesting or less interesting? Which is to say, does the story stand on its own two feet? Has this book taken true tales and given them new life or has it created an entirely fictional (some would say fanciful) world that bears little resemblance to what really did occur back in the day? I am pleased to report that Gennifer Choldenko's book, "Al Capone Does My Shirts" sits strongly in the former category. Taking true facts, following them up with historical research and footnotes, and giving the whole book a real but fascinating feel, Choldenko has written one of the great chidren's novels of 2004. The story is deeply interesting and continually gripping without boring the reader once. The premise is alluring but it's Choldenko's excellent writing that solidifies this puppy as a must-read for all ages.
Not many kids get to live on an island chock full of the world's most dangerous prisoners. But not many kids are Moose Flanagan. When his father takes a job as a guard on Alcatraz Island, just off the coast of San Francisco, Moose finds himself in alarmingly close proximity with a variety of different vicious criminals. The whole reason his father took the job, of course, is because of Moose's sister Natalie. A victim of autism, Natalie's condition isn't one that's easy to treat in 1935 America. The family has just discovered a wonderful school that might do Natalie some great good if they can only get her into it. Unfortunately, treating Natalie so that she's acceptable to the school may require her to spend copious amounts of time with Moose when he'd rather be playing baseball. And then there's that awful warden's daughter, Piper, who keeps getting Moose and his friends into trouble all the time. Things are a lot more interesting on an island prison than even Moose might have suspected.
The book does several very difficult things simultaneously. First of all, it tells the story of Moose and Natalie without appealing to the lowest common denominator. I was deathly afraid that this might turn into one of those "Beautiful Mind"/"I Am Sam"/"Shine"/any other triumph-over-adversity story you'd like to name. I was hoping against hope that this would not end up being some teary weeper with a perfect happy ending and an idealized struggle against the unknowable. Now, admittedly, the ending is (not to give anything away) pretty darn perfect. Choldenko isn't afraid of employing a little deus ex machina to get her way. On the other hand, she pulls it off. Sure, the ending's just a tad schlocky. But it's also exactly what the reader wants to hear. There are no happy endings for autistic kids in a 1935 world, but this one comes pretty darn close.
Another difficult thing the book manages is to ever-so-slightly redeem the story's resident demon from the fourth dimension of Hell, Piper. This girl is trouble, but worse she's self-centered, cruel, and cunning. Moose knows right from the start not to trust her, but she's also cute and Moose is fourteen-years-old and not entirely in charge of his hormones. I guess I spend a lot of my time reading children's books in a state of deathly fear because not only was I worried that this would be a cheesy heartwarming tale but I was also afraid that Piper would be utterly redeemed by the tale's end. And gosh darn it, I hated Piper! I hated her so much it wasn't funny. I mean, she almost gets the other kids' parents fired, she mocks Natalie (calls her "retarded" no less), she lies, tries to use Natalie as bait to get at a con, and is generally awful all over. Yet Choldenko gives her a slight improvement by the book's end. Nothing mind-blowing. Nothing miraculous. Just an ever-so-slight change from breathtaking evil to almost having a heart. And in a lesser author's hands this would've been either unbelievable or callous or both. Yet Choldenko pulls it, and many other plot points too, off with a skill I've not seen in a rising children's author in some time.
So let's review. You've got a book that is chock full of facts. I mean, the author even includes a note at the back that explains what was made up and points out which facts may have been stretched. She's so accurate that she even feels the need to point out that the weather she's listed here, "does not reflect the exact weather of 1935". Now THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is a writer who cares about preserving a historical record. In addition to this, the book does not pull at your heart-strings in a cheap and lazy fashion. It's honest and appealing and treats Natalie's autism brilliantly (possibly because Choldenko's own sister had a severe form of autism). Finally, it redeems the unredeemable believably. I don't know what else I can say except to point out that on top of all this the book's a very enjoyable read. It has characters you care for, real moments of tension and suspense, a brilliant setting, and a superb ear for dialogue. If you want to booktalk a new story to the kids you know, just offer them this tale about a guy who lives near gangsters and murderers. I think they'll bite.
on May 31, 2006
1. Describe how Moose's character changed during the story.
Moose changed slowly during the story. At first, Moose hated Alcatraz and he wanted to move back to Santa Monica. Also during the story, Moose started helping Natalie more and both of them were getting close and spending more time together.
2. Why do you think the author wrote this novel?
I think the author wrote this novel because she wanted to explain that not everyone is as lucky as us and that life has its ups and downs. I also think she wanted to talk about history and about how people were living before. Ex. the way they dressed, their different jobs, and most importantly, how they lived.
3. Would you recommend this book to your friends?
I would recommend this book to my friends because it talks about life then in an interesting way. It's also very exciting, and you feel like the book is stuck to your hands!
on June 8, 2005
Listening to this book I could hear the sea gulls and feel the chop of the waves beneath the hull of the boat that carried me across the water and back in time. The characters and story begged to be listened to but the real star of this tale is the setting, Alcatraz Island in the year 1935.
Moose Flanagan's family moves to Alcatraz when his father gets a job as an electrician/guard at the famous prison. Moose is homesick and lonely. He must take the boat to the mainland for school each day. His passion is baseball and the game helps him make new friends.
His home life is more problematic. His father works around the clock. His sister Natalie is autistic (although that condition is not identified) and subject to tantrums and unexplainable behaviors. His mother is so driven to get Natalie enrolled in a special school in San Francisco that she is blind to her son's needs.
The unseen presence in the story is the gangster Al Capone who is imprisoned in Alcatraz. The children of the island are fascinated, thrilled and terrified by the convicts. They are obsessed with catching a glimpse of Capone. The warden's gorgeous daughter, Piper is the same age as Moose and seems to have a gift for getting him in trouble.
Choldenko writes with great compassion of the challenges of living with an autistic family member. You admire and ache for Moose as he shoulders the responsibility of watching over his sister when he could be playing baseball in the afternoons. His kindness and love for his sister give the story extra depth.
Johnny Heller's narration is excellent. His voicing of Moose and Natalie are beautifully done. Moose's voice answering "Yes Sir!" to the Warden has lingered in my mind.
Interesting characters, the Great Depression and Alcatraz Island make this one of the most original works of historical fiction I have ever read.
On January 4, 1935, Matthew "Moose" Flanagan and family leave the comforts of Santa Monica for life on Alactraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Moose's 15-year-old sister Nat has severe autism (the term autism was not coined until 1943) and her behavior fits the classic profile of Kanner's, or classic/infantile autism. She is preoccupied with her button collection; she counts objects and creatures in her environment and has memorized page numbers in book indices and tables of contents. Devoted to routine, she has meltdowns when unexpected changes are introduced. Her speech is primarily echolalic. She also has a flair for numbers.
Their father accepted a job as an electrician and sometime guard at the infamous prison and their mother keeps insisting Nat is 10 so as to stave off the encroachment of time. The rationale for this is to ensure the girl a place in a special school that has recently opened in San Francisco.
Moose, despite his challenges on the home front appears to have adjusted well. He takes the daily ferry with the other children who live on the island to the public school in the city. An avid baseball enthusiast, Moose falls in with a group of boys who love the sport as much as he does.
Moose's second biggest problem after minding his older sister is the warden's daughter, Piper. A sneaky snitch, she has a bizarre attraction to notoriety and will do just about anything to meet Al Capone, notorious gangster and probably the most infamous prisoner in Alcatraz. She hatches a scheme to have the prisoners launder her classmates' clothing; the catch here is that she sells this service as "having your clothes washed by Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly." She alternately bribes and blackmails Moose to help her launch these schemes; she even uses his sister as part of her underhanded conniving plots.
Despite some rather funny, touching and serious issues and set backs, Moose soldiers on, surviving Piper and the aura among his "city" classmates of living on the island once known as The Rock. He and other kids look for baseballs the cons have hit over their highly enclosed baseball diamond as these baseballs carry the "aura" of having been a part of a prison game.
This brilliantly written book is historically accurate and I like the way this author cleverly included Al Capone's mother in the story. This was done so naturally and so plausibly that readers don't even question this. Choldenko also includes a bibliography replete with notes about Alcatraz Island, citing sources and explaining where history "meets" fiction. I found the early treatments for people with severe autism interesting and the descriptions of the woefully inadequate provisions that were made for people in need of services, especially during the Depression.
A truly, brilliant work. I can't recommend it highly enough and I will certainly recommend this author to the local elementary and middle schools.
on May 21, 2004
"Al Capone Does My Shirts" is about a 12-year old boy named Moose, whose family moves to Alcatraz in 1934 for his dad's job as a prison guard there. If you don't know, Alcatraz is a maximum-security prison on a rocky island across the bay from San Francisco. Although it is no longer in use, in the 1930's, Alcatraz was prison sweet prison to such notorious gangsters as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. You could understand why Moose isn't excatly thrilled to live there. But the other reason they moved is so his sister, Natalie, could go to the Esther P. Marinoff school. Natalie has a disease that is today called autism, but was unidentified in the 30's. Moose, wanting his sister to be "normal", agrees to move for her sake. Still, he isn't happy about living on what he calls "a 12-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turds and surrounded by water". But the other families that live on Alcatraz might change his mind.
This book is both funny and sad, and Moose is very easy to relate to. Other very dynamic characters make "Al Capone Does My Shirts" interesting. You'll finish it quickly and wish it were longer.
on June 24, 2013
First off, let me say this books is unique, admirable, and well worth your time. I read it in a day and I am an incredibly slow reader. Though Moose Flanagan (the 12-year-old living on Alcatraz Island with his family because his father works there) is purportedly the central character, two other characters, in my opinion, are better developed: Natalie, the autistic older sister of Moose, and Moose's mother, a woman totally dedicated and absorbed with helping her daughter.
At the beginning of the book, I had a small problem with identifying important details because the opening chapters introduce a slew of characters. For example, I had to go back and reread early chapters to ascertain that the children on the island, for the most part, took a boat to the mainland for their schooling. I also had some trouble telling a few characters apart. But as the plot developed, I was very taken with the warmth the author felt for her characters and how moving the story was. Natalie is really the center of the story and Moose's maturation process is effected by his reaction to and relationship with his sister. And Moose's mother is a wonderfully complex woman, willing to do anything it takes to help her daughter, even if it means lying to others (and even herself) about her daughter's advancing age.
This leads me to the moral problem I have with the book's ending. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: The resolution of the story's central problem is brought about in a morally-iffy manner. While certainly inventive, and just maybe possible, the solution is still a definite "the ends justify the means" transaction. The ending could be construed to condone the strong arm tactics used by mobsters to achieve their aims. Great result, questionable tactics.
Whether to use this book in a classroom? As a middle grades teacher for 30 years I can see how some parents would be wary of a book with some violent and sexual overtones. Caveat emptor. However, what could you expect from a story that takes place in an environment full of monsters, which all the Alcatraz inmates undoubtedly were? (It would be bit like, as you were leaving the theater, to complain about the violence in a movie entitled "Zombie Attacks." Uh, I think the movie poster would sort of give a clue as to the content.) And yes, the language can be a bit raw. But again, consider the setting. Do you expect a person just shot in a war movie to scream, "Ah, shucks"? So yes, I believe this book should be handled with care by teachers and parents, but then again so should watching the evening news. You will get far more sex, violence, corruption, and depravity there than from this book.
All in all, many thanks to Gennifer Choldenko for a great reading experience. (And don't neglect to read the afterward. You will find very interesting details that had tremendous influence in the creation of this work.)
on December 13, 2004
Choldenko weaves Bay Area history, baseball, the legend of Al Capone, and a satisfying family story into a winning YA novel. Moose Flanagan moves with his family to Alcatraz. In the depression-era 30's Dad is happy to have a job as a guard and electrician, but the move is really motivated by a desire to place Moose's autistic sister, Natalie, into a special San Francisco school. Moose is Natalie's care giver and champion and in spite of her illness, the two of them form friendships in the tight knit Alcatraz community. The best part of the story revolves around Moose's growing understanding of what family choices will mean for Natalie's future. Guided by his affection for Natalie and his own need for some kind of normal life, Moose helps his parents come to terms with their situation and find a future for Natalie. Moose is very wise for a teenager, but his behavior and emotions always ring true. The role Capone plays is small, but his legend looms large in the book and adds both mystery and humor. Choldenko spent several years as a docent on Alcatraz and her knowledge of the island and the prison it housed add significantly to the books authenticity.
on August 25, 2015
Required summer reading for annotations prior to Advanced 6th grade ELA class. My son enjoyed the book a lot, though annotating takes a little of that excitement away by slowing it down. Thanks to other reviewers I discussed Al Capone with him before he read it. We also discussed the words rapist and blasphemy in the sense I was comfortable explaining. I would not recommend this book for children younger than 11 just for some of that content. But overall from what I read, it was a good read for middle schoolers with a little background. My son enjoyed the book and read it a second time to be ready for his test.