An island prison, a warden, a guard’s family, and a young boy growing up with an autistic sister.
Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book in 2005. Written for children, but loved by adults as well, this novel is set in one of the oddest and most fascinating places in the world: Alcatraz, the island home of what used to be a maximum security prison from 1934 to 1963. At that time, prisoners were not the only ones living on Alcatraz. The story takes place in the late 1930’s when many prison guards and other employees lived in apartments there with their families. The warden had a house.
In Choldenko’s novel, Moose, age 12, is forced to move to Alcatraz by his parents, but has a hard time adjusting to life away from his best friend in Santa Monica. There are other children on the island, but none he connects with right away. The warden’s daughter, Piper, is a trouble maker he tries to ignore, unsuccessfully. When Moose goes to school in San Francisco and meets Scout, he has a chance to play baseball with other boys. Then his mother ruins his fun by insisting that he go home from school immediately after school every day to take care of his older sister, Natalie, who is autistic.
Choldenko chose an unusual and exciting location for the novel and it plays as important a role as any of her characters. According to an interview posted on her website, she got the idea for the novel from a newspaper article, then volunteered as a docent on Alcatraz to do her research. At the end of the novel she includes a few pages about Alcatraz history, noting what was historically accurate in her novel, and what parts were pure fiction.
Another element of the novel that contributed to its success was Natalie’s character – an autistic teenage girl who doubled as a human calculator while being totally out of touch with any part of reality other than her button collection and numbers. This character, while being wholly fictional, was based on Choldenko’s observation of her own older autistic sister. Moose’s predicament gives a voice to anyone who has been a caretaker of an autistic relative.
The novel’s bright red cover and a photograph of Alcatraz are essential to the appeal of the book. Since it has a shiny silver Newbery Honor Book sticker as well, Al Capone Does My Shirts is sure to attract attention for years to come.
Suggested for grades 6-8.
Amazon Link: Al Capone Does My Shirts
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