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Gennifer Choldenko – Al Capone Does My Shirts

April 26, 2010

42. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (2004)
Moose Flanagan, Book 1

Length: 230 pages
Genre: Mid-grade/Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Started: 10 April 2010, hour fourteen of the readathon.
Finished: 10 April 2010, hour sixteen of the readathon.

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I don’t remember where I first heard about it, but it was Jessica’s review that made me really want it.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 September 2008.

Oddly, moving to
Alcatraz won’t solve all of
your family’s problems.

Summary: Having to move to a new town is never fun for a kid… but when your new home is Alcatraz Island, the high security prison that’s home to the worst criminals in the country, that’s a whole different ball game. It’s 1935, and seventh-grader Moose Flanagan is happy that his dad is working when so many other people aren’t… but he wishes that his dad could have gotten a job anywhere else. Not only does he have to live on the island with the prison, but there are very few other kids, and the only one his age is Piper, the scheming daughter of the warden. And, to make matters worse, Moose is expected to spend all of his free time taking care of his sister Natalie, who is severely autistic. Between Piper’s schemes and Natalie’s condition, how can Moose possibly be expected to have a normal childhood?

Review: I’m not sure where I got the idea that this book was funny – maybe from the title? – but boy, was I wrong on that one. I mean, yes, there were bits that made me laugh, but there were also bits that made me cry, and I was not expecting that at all. Even the back cover doesn’t really give you a good sense for it; it only mentions Natalie in passing, with nary a mention of autism (which is never called by name in the story itself, since it wasn’t defined as a diagnosis until 1943.) I went in expecting a book about the excitement and challenges of growing up on Alcatraz, and I got a book about the challenges of growing up with an autistic sister… that happened to take place on the famous prison. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool setting for the story, made cooler by the fact that a lot of the details about life on Alcatraz are factually accurate. But it’s a lot more serious and moving of a story, and it dealt more weighty issues than it might have seemed at first blush. I particularly thought Moose was a well-done character, and his relationship with his sister felt incredibly real, which was a huge factor in making the story as touching as it ultimately was. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’d recommend this to anyone mid-grade and up who likes historical fiction and/or coming of age novels… but I think it would be particularly relatable to readers with younger siblings.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Becky’s Book Reviews, Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books, The Bluestocking Society, The Book Nest, Book Nut, A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, The Novel World, One Librarian’s Book Reviews, Reading Rants, Young Adult Literature Review
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.

Cover Thoughts: I wish the picture of Alcatraz had been bigger; on my copy, it’s not immediately apparent what it is on just a glance.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 8:31 am

    I thought this was a funny book too! Even though it’s not, it sounds right up my alley. Thanks for a great review.

    • April 30, 2010 8:52 am

      bermudaonion – I hope you get a chance to check it out!

  2. April 26, 2010 1:05 pm

    I got plenty of laughs out of this one, but you are right – there is plenty to make you think and also cry. Loved it! I also just enjoyed the sequel too.

    • April 30, 2010 8:53 am

      melissa – I’m not saying I didn’t get a few laughs; there were definitely some funny and some cute parts. I was just surprised how serious some parts of it were.

  3. April 26, 2010 7:36 pm

    I’d seen this one around but for some reason I could never get past the title. Anyways, I’m so glad to have read your review because it definitely sounds like an interesting read!

    • April 30, 2010 8:54 am

      Joanne – I think I got this title confused for a long time with some other, similarly-unwieldly YA titles that came out around the same time.

  4. April 26, 2010 8:41 pm

    What a cute title and what a lovely premise- I’m glad it actually deals with everything well, especially the autistic sister before autism was even diagnosed.

    • April 30, 2010 8:55 am

      Omni – I’ve never had to deal with someone with autism so severe, so I can’t really say how true to life it is (or not), but it certainly *felt* true.

  5. April 28, 2010 5:40 pm

    The title is really misleading, although it’s what drew me to the book in the first place. The characters, the story and the writing are what kept me reading and made me pick up the sequeI. LOVE Gennifer Choldenko.


    • April 30, 2010 9:01 am

      Susan – I’ve added your link, thanks! I’m definitely interested in picking up the sequel, although I’ll probably wait until it’s out in paperback.

  6. Sme permalink
    April 20, 2012 4:22 pm

    I loved the book and have shared it with many adolescents. The author introduced the book herself, at our public library here in the San Fran Bay Area. Choldenko was very personable, by the way. She captured my interest by telling us about how she developed the story while working as a docent on Alcatraz, reading old files and prison records that are not available to the public, learning about Capone. She told about how many drafts she wrote, too, (~40, I think) and how difficult it was to find a publisher.

    It made Alcatraz more meaningful to me, and I have driven past San Quenton, where the train dumped Capone’s furniture crate” onto the ship bound for the island.


  1. Reviews: Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004); Anything But Typical (2009)

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