Al Capone Does My Shirts
by Gennifer Choldenko
When I picked out this Newbery Honor book, I did not know what I was getting into. I knew it had something to do with kids growing up on the prison island of Alcatraz, where their fathers were guards. The back cover blurb even makes a vague reference to the main characters sister being not like other kids. With the title being what it is, and with a boyish narrator named Moose Flanagan, I expected a quirky, irreverently funny, slice-of-life-in-1935 story about kids playing stickball on the parade ground and playing make-believe games inspired by the convicts who lived nearby.
Boy, was I unprepared for this book. Instead of making me grin, it ripped my heart out.
It isnt a realistic slice-of-life, but it is a clever story based, in part, on some little known facts of history, such as the fact that, thanks to the prisons inmate-run laundry service, some people in 1935 San Francisco could say, Al Capone does my shirts. But above all, it is a powerful depiction of a family dealing with one of the most heartbreaking problems you can imagine. Mooses not-like-other-kids sister might, today, be diagnosed as autistic. But in 1935, Natalies problems could not be properly diagnosed, let alone treated.
Natalies suffering you can deal with. Autistic people arent very expressive about their feelings though Natalies fits could be frightening. The suffering of her family, though the strain on the parents marriage, and on Mooses relationship with his mother is vividly portrayed (thanks to the authors personal experience having an autistic sister). So vividly, in fact, that you wish the book wasnt so compulsively readable. It would feel so much better to put it down, if you could.
Most books that win Newbery Honors do it not by being irreverently funny, but by informing you about a different way of life while, at the same time, touching your emotions. Al Capone Does My Shirts follows this recipe, and seasons it to a level of pungency you might not expect. Dont be surprised if you come out of this book feeling as if your heart went through the mangle at Alcatraz Prison. Rather, let this books beauty, love, and sense of mischief and danger in spite of its serious subject matter be the surprise.
Recommended Age: 10+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.