Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (pgs. 225) was a Newberry Honor Book in 2005. This should have told me something right away. I actually thought this was going to be a silly book. Silly name = silly book, right? Oh how wrong I was. My only complaint is that it didn't win the AWARD in 2005, because this is one fabulous book!!
Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water. Alcatraz sits smack in the middle of the bay -- so close to the city of San Francisco, I can hear them call the score on a baseball game on Marina Green. Okay, not that close. But still. The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want. I never knew a prison could be picky, but I guess they can. You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you are me. I got here because my mother said I had to.
This is the story of the Flannagan family. In 1935, the family of the guards were actually housed on the island prison of Alcatraz. Matthew, or Moose, Flannagan is a 12-year-old boy that loves baseball and tries to be normal. His older sister Natalie is severely autistic, though in 1935 no one actually knows what is wrong with her. Only that she is different. Moose's dad took a job as a prison guard/electrician and moved the family to Alcatraz for one reason. To be close to San Francisco so Natalie could go to the Esther P. Marinoff School. It was a chance for her to learn to be "normal". Natalie had tantrums, didn't communicate like other children and had a box of buttons that she never left without. She could multiply numbers like 1,654 X 358 and knew and the page numbers in every book index the Flanagan's owned. Moose just wanted to make friends and play baseball.
Also on the island, besides criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, were other kids. Piper, the warden's daughter was a beautiful albeit scheming girl that was always trying to make a buck and seemed to be the unquestioned leader of the gang. When she tried to rope Moose into helping her "Sell" convict laundry services to the kids at school, he realized he was going to be in trouble. All the kids wanted their shirts done by the famous Al Capone, after all. But Piper was mean. She made fun of Natalie, blackmailed the other children into helping her in her outlandish schemes, and ran to tell her daddy of anything done wrong.
When I started this book, I had no idea where it was going. What materialized was a coming-of-age story about a boy that loved his sister, no matter what her differences were. It's about a family that is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that Natalie gets a fair shake in life. And it's about friendships that will last no matter what the odds are. I loved this book. It was touching, heartwarming, and had enough humor to make me laugh. I think any adult would love this book, probably more so than the age group it's actually intended for. As an adult we can see how much this 12-year-old boy actually puts on the line for his sister. I highly recommend this book to everyone!! 4.5/5