Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Moose's father works as a guard for Alcatraz prison, and the whole family has just moved to the island to live so they can save some money and Moose's sister, Natalie, can go to a special school.  Moose is NOT happy about this.  Now he's separated from all his friends for another one of his mom's crazy plans that probably won't even help Natalie at all.  Moose has to deal with the prison warden's daughter's schemes to meet Al Capone, babysitting his older sister, making new friends, and just trying to be a regular kid.

This was pretty great.  There are so many things to love about.  The humor, the family dynamics, the look at life in the 30s.  Let's talk about the family first.

Natalie probably had a form of Autism, but in 1935, no one knows about Autism yet.  Moose's mother is desperate to help her and has tried everything possible.  From different kind of doctors to voodoo dolls.  That might sound kind of extreme, but the alternative was putting your child in an asylum, which has also been suggested, and has refused to do it.  Moose's mother will try anything she can possibly can, no matter how far fetched it might sound.

Everyone is hopeful when Natalie gets into a special school that works with kids like her, but she's sent home saying she's "not ready."  They aren't equipped to deal with someone with Natalie's disabilities.  Moose's mother is determined to get Natalie ready, and hires a private teacher to work with her.

Meanwhile, Moose is being a regular kid and dealing with the issues in his family.  He's just moved, so of course he misses his friends from home.  He loves his sister very much, but sometimes, realistically, he's resentful.  Natalie's the reason they had to move.  She's the reason his mom is so stressed all the time.  She's the reason Moose can't play baseball after school with the other guys, because he has to go straight home to babysit his sister.  And it's hard for him.  It's a lot of responsibility for a 12 year-old.  His mother is so busy with Natalie, she doesn't have a whole lot of time for him.

The family finally has a confrontation, which leads to Moose and his mother understanding each other better.  Although Natalie is 16, the family has been told to tell everyone she's ten, because during this time period any work that was being done with children with disabilities was done with young children.  16 was too old, and too old for the school Moose's mother wants Natalie to be in.  Moose finally confronts her about this, and while it doesn't fix everything, it does lead to Moose and his mother understanding each other better.

While there's this serious and sad aspect to the book, I found the book very funny.  Moose meets the other kids who live at Alcatraz, in particular Piper, the warden's daughter, who he can't stand.  She's bossy and manipulative, and always has some kind of plan to either make money or to talk to Al Capone.  She also has a knack of getting out of trouble when it all hits the fan, leaving the other kids to take the fall.  From getting kids at school to pay to have their laundry done by prisoners, to sneaking aboard the ferry to try and talk to Al Capone's mother, Piper is always getting Moose into situations he doesn't want to be in.

Al Capone is prevalent throughout the book, even though we never see him.  The kids are all fascinated by him, and Moose finally decides to write Al Capone a letter to see if he can help Natalie get into the school.

I highly recommend this, and there are sequels as well!

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