Title: Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The year is 1935 and Moose Flannagan and his family have moved to the island of Alcatraz so that his father can work as a guard and maintenance man in the prison. Moose’s older sister Natalie suffers from cognitive disabilities and the family is hoping that a nearby school will be able to improve her condition. As Moose adjusts to life on the island and at his new school, he struggles to find someone to play baseball with and also to stay out of the sights of Piper, the warden’s conniving daughter. When Piper attempts to rope Moose into one of her schemes that would break many of the island’s rules, Moose realizes that trying to fit in with his peers could raise serious trouble for his family.
My Take: I thought that this book was fantastic and wish that I had read it sooner (it was originally published in 2004). The characters are the driving force of the book. As the story progresses, we slowly discover different sides of Moose, Natalie, and the rest of the cast, making them more complicated and more human.
I also thought that Choldenko handled well the setting of Alcatraz. While the island prison is ever present, the author never uses it in a way that feels excessive or contrived. Moose actually never enters the prison and his interactions with the convicts is limited to one individual. Choldenko knows that less is more and her restraint in her choices makes Alcatraz and its prisoners seem all that more intriguing and dangerous. We never meet Al Capone which makes him more mysterious.
I also give credit to the author for shifting the focus of the plot in the second act. Readers slowly realize that this story is not really about Alcatraz, Al Capone, or Piper’s schemes. Rather, this is a book about a young man learning to understand his relationship with his sister and of a family and community learning how to support someone with autism.
One Interesting Note About The Author: The character of Natalie is partly based on Gennifer Choldenko’s sister who had with autism.
The Plot in Five Sentences Or Less: Bud Calloway is an orphan who never knew his father and whose mother died a few years ago. Bud springs himself from his next foster home and manages to hide out for a few nights outside the local public library. But the road beckons, and soon Bud is on his way to Grand Rapids to find his father. Along the way, he meets a lot of quirky characters who help him along in his quest. He eventually encounters a grumpy jazz musician who doesn’t fit his model of fatherhood.
My Take: This is the first book that I had read by Curtis and I was not disappointed. No landscape writer, Curtis’s strength lies in his ear for creating a character through the sound of their words. I can certainly understand why this book won the 2000 Newberry Medal Award. Bud is an artfully sketched out character who is as adept at survival as he is with the English language. I appreciated Bud’s rituals to stay out of trouble with adults and his humorous “Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.” I recommend this book to any 5th grader and above who can appreciate Bud’s interesting view on life.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, after graduating high school in Flint, Michigan, Curtis worked in Fisher’s Body Plant #1, hanging 80 lbs. car doors onto Buick’s.
The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less: Bitty is a canary that lives in the town of Coalbank Hollow, West Virginia in 1931. Caged with other canaries in a boy’s room, the birds are daily taken to the mines and used as methane and carbon monoxide detectors. The mines are dangerous for man and bird and alike, so Bitty concocts a plan to escape. After springing himself, he makes his way to Charleston where he plans to somehow petition the state government to make mining safer. Along the way he meets lots of new friends, makes some enemies, and learns that changing the status quo is not easy.
My Take: This is a solid anthropomorphic book in the spirit of E.B. White or Dick King-Smith. I learned a lot about mining and also about birds (before reading this I couldn’t tell a grackle from a crow). Some readers may quibble about a bird somehow knowing to make their way to Charleston to legislate for mining conditions, but, hey, its a children’s book. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note about the Author: Madelyn’s first children’s “book” was called “Mommy’s Flying Birthday Cake.” You may view a copy of it here.