This past week I read Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. This delightful YA book is about 12-year-old Matthew (nicknamed ‘Moose’ by his older sister, Natalie) and his family’s move to Alcatraz — a high-security island housing some of the most dangerous cons of the 1930’s through the early 60’s. In the book, Moose must conquer his fear of living in such proximity to dangerous criminals and avoid being ensnared in the schemes of Piper, the pretty but con-in-the-making daughter of the warden. Moose also must deal with understandable issues of adolescence such as being the new kid in school and adult-type responsibilities at home. The young, but mature Moose handles all of this and more throughout this must-read.
I very much enjoyed this book. One element that I particularly found interesting was the story of the main character’s sister, Natalie. In the Author’s Note, Choldenko explains to the reader that Natalie (although a fictitious character loosely based on her own sister) is a teenager with autism. Although a serious struggle, a person with autism today has a much more promising future than those dealing with it in 1935 such as Natalie. Throughout the story, the family heard an unsettling amount of negative feedback about Natalie. Often they were encouraged by friends, family, and even professionals to take her to an asylum. Autism was often, as Choldenko explained in the Author’s Note, misdiagnosed, mistreated, and misunderstood. Therefore, individuals such as Natalie were often treated almost as poorly as the convicts in the prison at Alcatraz. I applaud Choldenko for choosing to add such a complex character to the story and for shining a light on advancements we’ve made in both understanding and treatments!
Although I am certain that any young (or adult!) reader would enjoy this book, I believe that the added historical components and the interesting element of danger from the convicts would make this a favorite for readers who enjoy the adventure found in fantasy, but with a reasonable dose of reality. Personally, I will try to find more historical fiction YA books in the upcoming weeks to read because of this book. Although Choldenko did not by any means overwhelm the reader with historical content, the bits and pieces I discovered about the history of Alcatraz ignited a desire to learn more — a goal I am sure Choldenko had while creating this novel. Overall, it was a wonderful, absorbing read and I would absolutely recommend it!