Friday, January 18, 2008

Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Does My Shirts
by Gennifer Choldenko
Recommended Age: 10+

When I picked out this Newbery Honor book, I did not know what I was getting into. I knew it had something to do with kids growing up on the prison island of Alcatraz, where their fathers were guards. The back cover blurb even makes a vague reference to the main character’s sister being “not like other kids.” With the title being what it is, and with a boyish narrator named Moose Flanagan, I expected a quirky, irreverently funny, slice-of-life-in-1935 story about kids playing stickball on the parade ground and playing make-believe games inspired by the convicts who lived nearby.

Boy, was I unprepared for this book. Instead of making me grin, it ripped my heart out.

It isn’t a realistic slice-of-life, but it is a clever story based, in part, on some little known facts of history, such as the fact that, thanks to the prison’s inmate-run laundry service, some people in 1935 San Francisco could say, “Al Capone does my shirts.” But above all, it is a powerful depiction of a family dealing with one of the most heartbreaking problems you can imagine. Moose’s “not-like-other-kids” sister might, today, be diagnosed as autistic. But in 1935, Natalie’s problems could not be properly diagnosed, let alone treated.

Natalie’s suffering you can deal with. Autistic people aren’t very expressive about their feelings – though Natalie’s fits could be frightening. The suffering of her family, though – the strain on the parents’ marriage, and on Moose’s relationship with his mother – is vividly portrayed (thanks to the author’s personal experience having an autistic sister). So vividly, in fact, that you wish the book wasn’t so compulsively readable. It would feel so much better to put it down, if you could.

Most books that win Newbery Honors do it not by being irreverently funny, but by informing you about a different way of life while, at the same time, touching your emotions. Al Capone Does My Shirts follows this recipe, and seasons it to a level of pungency you might not expect. Don’t be surprised if you come out of this book feeling as if your heart went through the mangle at Alcatraz Prison. Rather, let this book’s beauty, love, and sense of mischief and danger – in spite of its serious subject matter – be the surprise.

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