Review of: Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

Reviewed by:  Mrs. Herr

In all the years that I have known about Alcatraz and the infamous criminals of the 1920’s and 1930’s, it never occurred to me to wonder where all of those guards and their families lived.  It certainly never crossed my mind that there were whole families living on the island of Alcatraz – including their children!  Can you imagine growing up on a prison island with some of the most notorious criminals in the country – such as Al Capone or Machine Gun Kelly?

Gennifer Choldenko, author of Al Capone Does My Shirts, has created a story about that very idea.  Matthew “Moose” Flannagan is a responsible 12-year old boy whose family has just moved to this rather bizarre “neighborhood” of Alcatraz.  Moose would love to move back to his old home and baseball team, but times are hard in the mid-1930’s and his father needs the work as a guard and bomb diffuser in order to send his sister Natalie to a special school.  Moose tries to make new friends with the other kids on the island, some of whom are rather prone to getting into trouble.  On top of that, Moose’s is often in charge of taking care of his older sister, Natalie, who has been kicked out of her school.  Natalie would be diagnosed with autism today, but in the 1930’s, they didn’t know or understand this diagnosis.  Moose finds himself in the position of “babysitting” more and more often, and he desperately wants to think of a creative way to help Natalie get into a new school.   His motives are originally selfish, but along the way he grows to learn what it means to love your family unconditionally.  He genuinely wants to see her in the right school, but to accomplish this, Moose will try a dangerous scheme using the resources and inmates of Alcatraz itself!

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel.  I truly had no idea what to expect and to be honest, I thought Al Capone would play a central role in the story.   Even though Al Capone was not a main character, the cast of characters were believable and quirky with real problems in a setting unlike any I have read before – one of the most famous prisons in the world.  The relationship between Moose and his sister is unique; Moose loves, understands and cares for her with a lot of maturity, but you can also feel his frustration with her disability.  This story was full of surprises, humor, real-life situations and deep characters.

I absolutely recommend Al Capone Does My Shirts to students in 4th through 6th grades. I don’t personally know very many students who have read this book, but I hope many will give it a chance.  The great thing is that I can recommend this to either boys or girls because I think it would appeal to both. It’s very well written and much better than expected, so give it a try and enjoy!