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: Boy lives a simple existence on a manor estate in 14th century France: he tends the goats, sleeps in his hut, and tries to hide his hunchback from those who tease and call him names. His life is upended when a lone pilgrim named Secundus appropriates him for a trip to a local town to offer prayers to a holy relic. Along the way, Boy learns that Secundus has a longer journey in mind and divulges that he is on a quest to collect seven relics and take them to Rome. Boy finds himself swept up in an adventure that will open him up to the world beyond his manor home and learn extraordinary lesson about his true self.
My Take: Murdock has written an excellent novel here and definitely deserves its place as a Newberry Honor. I found myself caught up in the rough characters of Secundus and Boy. I marveled at Boy’s ability to rationalize his miserable existence at the manor and wondered how much grief was stored inside of him and how was he going to process it. Secundus is a more mysterious character who leaves the reader guessing at his motivations until deep into the book. I was touched by the convincing changes that both of these characters undergo and by the end was left feeling very close indeed to both of them. Mudrock deserves credit for weaving in supernatural elements in a seamless manner that almost makes them feel realistic. I often found myself wondering if something was real, the perspective of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps just the general beliefs of a more superstitious time in history. By keeping much back, Murdock kept me guessing, something that children’s literature rarely does. A highly recommended read for ages 12 +!
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to an interview with her, Catherine Gilbert Murdock prefers reading children’s literature to grown up books because she finds them “long-winded, depressing and lacking in resolution.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Due to a last minute change of plans, Cat and her younger brother Chicken must spend 3 weeks of their summer vacation with grandparents whom they have never met. They live on an island in North Carolina, which is at once an idyllic setting, but also presents challenges to Cat who must manage Chicken special needs, including his tendency to run off. As Cat struggles with her brother’s behavior, she draws closer to her grandparents and to other children on the island. Through these relationships, she discovers new things about herself, but also wounds that hopefully her time on the island can help heal.
My Take: This is a strong first novel by Gillian McDunn and makes a respectable entry into the canon of realistic juvenile literature. The central story of the book is Cat’s growth and change over the summer and her struggle to understand the things that have pulled her family apart in the past. McDunn makes a strong argument that the youngest members are sometimes the best ones to offer an opportunity for a family’s fresh start. The author is adept at exploring several heavy themes — such as the inherent loneliness in care taking, the way that bullies themselves are victimized, the need to control, etc. — without making this into an ‘issues book.’ I would happily recommend this to any reader around 11 years who is ready to consider some heavy themes.
One Interesting Note About The Author: The book Caterpillar Summer is in part inspired by McDunn’s relationship with her brother who multiple disabilities.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Jesse Alderman is the hook up man at Wakefield High, the guy who can get you anything–for a price. But when a big shot jock wants a shot at dating school hottie Bridget Smalley, Jesse’s real troubles begin. He ingratiates himself into her life and becomes good friends with her brother Pete who suffers from cerebral palsy. But as Jesse gets closer to Bridget and Pete, demons from his past begin to surface. The walls begin to close in on him as he understands that simply being smooth and untouchable is not enough.
My Take: Well, I just loved this book. Jesse Alderman is such a jerk-ass and an intriguing character at the same time that I couldn’t put this book down. More than anything, he is convincing. Spears has a talent for writing humorous, caustic dialogue that simply rings true.
I also appreciated that she has written a frustrated love story that is palatable for boys. Bereft of any hint of sentimental romance, this book features wounded characters that struggle for hints of humanity in the Darwinian jungle that is high school. I can certainly understand why this book was starred by Kirkus and School Library Journal. I would rank “Sway” as one of the best Young Adult books that I have ever read.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kat Spears has worked as a “bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter.” She has also worked as a gift shop attendant at St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry made his famous “Liberty or Death” speech in 1775.
Plot: Joey Pigza is a boy who has ADHD. He pulls out his hair, he spins through the hallways at school, and snatches flies out of the air. His home life exacerbates his condition. His father, who is an alcoholic, left when he was in kindergarten and his mother followed right after him. Joey’s grandmother steps in to raise him but, due to her own psychological problems, ends up emotionally abusing him.
When we meet Joey, his mother has returned to raise him, but his behavior continues to deteriorate. Events come to a head when Joey swallows his house key and also, albeit unintentionally, hurts another student with a pair of scissors.
Joey is sent to a special education center across town with children who suffer from sever physical and cognitive disabilities. The question for Joey now is will he be able to pull himself together with the help of medication and return to school?
Personal Reaction: I liked this book because it is written from the point of view of the unreliable narrator Joey. As readers, we understand that we aren’t getting the full story, and yet, through little hints and cues, we can feel the adults’ frustration waft off of the pages. Still, Joey remains a likable character because he does struggle with himself and genuinely wants to get better.
I would recommend this book to ages 9-12. This may be of special interest to children and parents who suffer from ADHD. Published 1998.
Themes: disabilities, social outcast, abandonment, alcoholism, special education