Al Capone Does My Shirts

by Gennifer Choldenko
ages: 9-13
First sentence: “Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd surrounded by water.”
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Moose Flannigan is NOT happy about his father’s new job. His father is a guard and an electrician on the most notorious prison in the country, especially in 1935: Alcatraz. And, because it’s 1935, that means the family gets to come along, too. Which means Moose has to leave his friends and start over.

All this is complicated by his sister Natalie’s condition. With today’s knowledge, she’d be diagnosed with autism. In the book — and I give Choldenko so much credit for making it seem as it probably really was, which was alternately quite revealing and very painful — she’s just got a “condition”, something that needs to be “cured”. Moose and Natalie’s mother was the hardest character to stomach: she couldn’t deal with Natalie, pretending she was ten for years, because younger children have more of a “chance” and because she just couldn’t deal with the fact that child was not “normal”. That I cringed every time she began to speak is a testament to how well Choldenko wrote her.

While autism, as well as Natalie’s acceptance to a special school in San Francisco, played a major role in the book, it wasn’t the whole plot. When Moose wasn’t struggling with his feelings about, or taking care of his sister, he was trying to figure out how to deal with the kids on the island — especially Piper (whom I wanted to smack!), the daughter of the warden, and who had it in her head that she could get away with just about everything — and trying to make friends at a new school, which is never easy. Choldenko got middle grade awkwardness down pat, from Moose’s reluctance to make waves to Piper’s bossiness. I also felt like she caught the time period; it felt like the 1930s, or at least what I imagine the 1930s to feel like.

Oh, and the ending: perfect.

Which makes me wonder what she’s done with Moose, Natalie and the island in the sequel. Something interesting, I hope.

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