Reviewed November 25, 2009.
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2004. 225 pages.
2005 Newbery Honor Book
I had meant to read this book for a very long time, since my sister was working as a park ranger at Alcatraz when the book was published, so I have an extra fondness and interest in the island. I still haven't ever been there myself, but superimposed her stories of camping out on the island with what was in this book, and, well, I have to visit some time! (Wendy, have you read this book yet? What do you think of it? Please comment!)
I finally got Al Capone Does My Shirts read when I took an online class on the Newbery Medal and had to read two Honor books from the same year as one of the Medal winners I read. I chose to read Al Capone Does My Shirts, and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, having already read The Voice That Challenged a Nation, all from 2005, the year that Kira-Kira won the Medal. Now, I might have chosen the Medal differently, but I do have to agree that all four of those books are truly distinguished contributions to American literature for children. (And one of the things we learned in the class is that you may not agree that the Medal winner is the one best book of the year, but you can be pretty darn sure that the set of books honored is going to be a collection of excellent books.)
In Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose Flanagan has just had to move with his family to Alcatraz Island. It's 1935 and jobs are scarce, and his father got a good job offer as an electrician there (with some time as guard on the side), so they have to move so they can afford to have his sister Natalie go to the Esther P. Marinoff School, where his mother is convinced Natalie will learn to go on to live a normal life.
Moose is not happy about moving to Alcatraz. He's not happy about his new school, he's not happy to watch his sister while his mother takes on extra work, and he's especially not happy about the warden's daughter who looks sweet on the outside but seems bent on breaking all the rules and getting everyone else in trouble.
You can tell Moose is a great brother. He knows what Natalie needs and he's extra considerate of what's going to upset her (like losing her box of buttons or letting them get messed up). But he's just a kid himself. Somehow, he's the one people want to blame when other people's schemes go awry.
Watching Moose cope with a new home -- on a prison island, no less -- new routines with his parents' jobs, making new friends and trying to fit in, and even finding a way to help his parents get his sister to the desired school, all gives us lots to root for and sympathize with. This is an interesting, humorous and inspiring story about a quirky fact of American history -- that families actually lived on Alcatraz Island, in a separate compound from the prisoners.
Gennifer Choldenko has recently written a sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. I assure you that I will NOT wait so long to read it!