Monday, January 11, 2010
Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years
Several months ago, I heard about the AL CAPONE series by Gennifer Choldenko, and my interest was piqued. It isn’t easy to write historical fiction for middle grade students without the risk of coming across as boring or dry. As an example, I just recently went through about a dozen historical fiction stories for this age group and tossed them aside because I couldn’t imagine reading them let alone recommending them to my students. However, Choldenko scores big time with me for being able to combine a coming of age story with historical fiction and doing it in a superb manner.
Al Capone Does My Shirts is set in 1935 in the midst of the great depression and 12 year old Moose Flannigan has moved with his family from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island. His father has accepted a job as an electrician/prison guard and has moved the family to the residential apartments adjacent to the prison which houses some of the most dangerous and famous criminals of the time including the infamous mob boss, Al Capone. With his father busy with work, and his mother preoccupied with the care of his sister with special needs, Moose must establish himself with new peers including the Warden’s mischievous daughter who seems set on getting Moose into trouble. Moose hopes to use baseball as a way to establish himself with his new classmates, but when his sister Natalie is dismissed from a special school in San Franciso, Moose finds himself caring for her after school while his mother works.
Choldenko does an amazing job weaving historical facts with the lives and experiences of her fictional characters. On the one hand, this is a story about a family that struggles with the challenges of having a child with special needs in a time when it was more common to institutionalize children like Moose’s sister. On the other hand, this is a story of the lives of the families that who lived in close proximity to some of history’s most notorious criminals. Never once did I feel that the story poorly represented either history or the lives of Moose and his family and friends.
This was one book that I couldn’t put down and I stayed up late reading and then went out the next day to buy the sequel. Moose is a relatable main character and his story is told with warmth, humor, and skill. Choldenko’s experience with her own sister with autism shows in the respect and realism in which she writes how Natalie’s disability impacts all of those around her both positively and negatively.
I can't say enough good things about this book and you must read it to find out more about the connection between Moose and Al Capone.