Al Capone Does My Shirts
By Gennifer Choldenko
Puffin Books, 2004
A children's/young adult book that has been very popular in America over the past few years. It has been named as a Newbery Honor selection, received the 2007 California Young Reader Medal, and spent six months on the New York Times Bestseller list. It is decidedly on the 'young' end of the young adult section, and is rated at a Grade level Equivalency of 4.7.
This is the story of Moose, a thirteen-year-old boy living on Alcatraz island in 1935. His father has a job as an electrician/guard at the prison, and the entire family has moved to the on-island village. This is a bit of a change for Moose, who was used to a much wider selection of friends at his old house; while Alcatraz has a library, a store, and a playing field, it doesn't have very many people, and even fewer kids his own age. And worse, one of the few who is his age is the warden's daughter, who is quite Machiavellian in her plans to make a buck off of the gullible kids in the mainland school, all of whom are star-struck by the island's inmates.
Which is only half the story. Moose also has a sister who is... different. Today Natalie would probably be identified as autistic, and at that time in history she would probably be called an idiot-savant, but Moose just knows that she is odd and often annoying. She loves counting, math, buttons, and rocks. She does not play well with others, and cannot function in school... perhaps not even some of the special progressive boarding schools that specialize in 'special' children. Their mother is desperate to get Natalie into some sort of a treatment program, and they don't take older children, so Natalie stopped aging at ten -- she is on her sixth tenth birthday the year this story starts. And as their mother takes more on work to try to raise money to get some help for Natalie, Moose has to spend more and more time watching her.
There isn't much of a plot to this novel. It's about Moose and his family adjusting to new circumstances and all the problems that go along with that. Surprisingly, it doesn't really read like a historical novel either. Obviously, it is set in 1935, but the author doesn't make a point of highlighting the differences between our time and theirs. I suspect that this book is popular with adults because it has a teenager dealing with a special needs sibling, although Natalie is reasonably high-functioning and rather stereotypical in her autistic traits. All together, I get the impression that this book is as popular as it is just because there is very little competition in the ... whatever-this-is genre.
I am no longer thirteen, but I'm pretty sure that at that age I would have found this book okay, but a little boring. Which is exactly what I feel now. The setting is interesting, the characters okay, there's a little more drama and arguing than I like, and a lot of the book is rather slow-moving. Of course, 1935, autism, and Alcatraz are not new ideas for me at this point in my life, and I could well be underestimating their draw on a younger crowd.
If you are scoping out this book for your kids, I think it's both nice enough and harmless. There is no violence, and only slight hints about sex. It isn't anything like the Monsters and Dystopia type books that have made the YA section so popular in recent years; it would fit quite well into the children's section of the library, and in schools across America, it does. On the other hand, if you are looking for a book to get your child interested in reading, you would probably do better with something like Holes.
Al Capone currently has one sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes
ISBN 0-14-240370-9, 225 pages.