Thursday, April 5, 2007

Book Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

The best children's book you have a chance to read this year, and yes, I know a new Harry Potter is coming out.

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. Puffin Books, New York: 2004. 225 pages. ISBN 0-14-240370-9.

Technically, it's not sf or fantasy, but I want you to read it anyway, and besides, you can't read that weird stuff all the time. I gotta get you some culture.

Choldenko's novel is well developed yet short because Choldenko has an impressive way with words and an ability to evoke a lot of emotion with very few of them. It's not technically historical fiction in the traditional sense because all the characters and situations are fictional, but it is based on an historical reality: The guards at Alcatraz lived on the island with their families. That's such a great premise for a kid's book, it's amazing it took so long for someone to create one.

It's 1935. The narrator of the story is twelve-year-old "Moose" Flanagan. His father has recently acquired a job as an electrician and guard on Alcatraz, and he takes his family with him. That includes Moose's mother and Moose's autistic sister, Natalie. Not only does Moose have to learn to watch out for his sister in this hazardous new environment, but he has to deal with the neighbors--especially Piper, the warden's bossy daughter. Piper is daddy's little girl, but the warden doesn't know about her get-rich-quick schemes: The prisoners do all the laundry on the island, so Piper is making money off her friends by smuggling them shirts washed by Al Capone himself!

The story is rapid, highly emotional, and humorous. Though Piper's scheming makes for some great laughs, the story's real centerpiece is the relationship between Moose and his sister, complicated by their mother's well-meant but headstrong attempts to "cure" Natalie of a disorder no one understood in 1935.

The mindsets and attitudes of all the kids in the novel are believable, though sometimes their snappy dialogue seems too clever for young children. Moose develops a love/hate-style infatuation for Piper over the course of the story, but Choldenko never falls into the trap of treating childhood puppy love like adult romance.

As for religion, there isn't much. Moose and his family are apparently non-religious. Two other kids in the story are apparently Catholic, though that's never stated explicitly. The morality of the story is good and it offers, without preaching, some excellent lessons on respecting and loving people who are different. It depicts families positively without denying their difficulties. The novel's heavy emotional impact helps deliver the life lessons home.

And it includes a brief essay on the back about the real history of families on the island, so it's even educational!

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Al Capone Does My Shirts:

Myth Level: Low (it's not that kind of book)

Quality: High (extra tight writing, excellent characters, great setting, great story)

Ethics/Religion: High (good moral, generally positive depiction of positive things, etc.)
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