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: In the 1940’s, America was at war, but its military was still segregated. Against this backdrop, fresh recruits arrive at Port Chicago outside of San Francisco. They are black men and, because of this, they are given the highly dangerous job of loading ammunition onto the ships with little to no safety training. On the evening of July 17, 1944 a huge explosion rips through the port, killing over 300 people. In the weeks following, 50 of the men refuse to load any more ammunition and are therefore put on trial for mutiny.
My Take: The Port Chicago 50 is not Steve Sheinkin’s most exciting book, but it is his most poignant. I found that the narrative slows down some during the trial portion of the story, but the final chapters more than make up for this. By the end of the book, I found that I had a knot in my throat as I considered the sacrifice that these black sailors made, really until the ends of their lives. The Port Chicago 50 is another example of Sheinkin’s gift of making history interesting and relevant. Highly recommended for ages 12+ looking for a non-fiction read concerning civil rights.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Steve’s brother-in-law Eric Person was the first to bring the story of the Port Chicago 50 to his attention. Eric mentioned the theory that the first atomic bomb was exploded not in the New Mexico desert in 1945, but rather a year earlier at Port Chicago. Intrigued, Steve dug deeper and unearthed the story of the Port Chicago 50.
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: During the Summer of Love in 1967 in the Haight District of San Francisco, Joanne falls in love with a hippie named Martin. Their relationship develops as Joanne watches her family and world change around her. Her sister Denise enters a loveless marriage and is sexually harassed at work while her brother Dan is interested in joining up and going to Vietnam. As Joanne’s relationship with Martin develops, she experiments with drugs and protesting against the war while also carving out time to excel at her piano practice.
My Take: Against my own predictions, I enjoyed this book and believe that young adult females interested in the 1960’s will get a kick out of it. When I began this book, my fear was that it was going to simply be about a silly, moon-eyed girl pining over a boy. Janet smartly puts in the side plot of Joanne’s burning interest in the piano and, because of this, I felt much more interested in this character. My one quibble was the placement of the characters at the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The scene was too short and inserted rather desultorily into the narrative. Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised by this story of young love in the 1960’s. Ages 13+ due to drug use and profanity.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Music plays a big part in Janet’s life. She has been taking piano lessons since the age of 7. She plays guitar as well, but feels most inclined to play classical piano. Find out more about at her website.
The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less: After she failed at running her Uncle Chester’s farm, Hattie Brooks is now working in a boardinghouse in Great Falls, Montana in 1919. Seeking to become a big city reporter, she makes her way to San Francisco with an acting troupe. She also wants to meet one Ruby Danvers, who apparently was very close to her uncle, and find out the background of their relationship. Through her pluck and determination, Hattie makes great progress in her career as a reporter, taking a ride in a new Boeing airplane and even meeting Woodrow Wilson. But Hattie must eventually make a choice between staying in San Francisco or following her true love Charlie.
My Take: Having not read Hattie Big Sky, I still felt that this was a fine, well written book about a girl trying to make it in the big city in the early 20th century. I can’t say that it was the most exciting book that I’ve read, the narrative is driven more by the relationships that Hattie makes rather than any action, but girls will find a lot to like in the character of Hattie. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby Larson originally wrote Hattie Big Sky inspired by her great-grandmother’s homesteading experience in eastern Montana.