Choldenko, G. (2004). Al capone does my shirts. New York City, New York: Puffin Books.
Al Capone Does My Shirts is a realistic fiction novel by Gennifer Choldenko. This unusual story follows an adolescent boy as his family moves to the infamous island that houses the Alcatraz prison. Throughout the story we see the main character’s struggles as he tries to adjust to his new life in this unusual setting. Along the way Matthew “Moose” Flannigan makes friends, has adventures, and even catches a glimpse of a real life criminal. At home, his family struggles to keep things together. The real reason they moved to Alcatraz was to find help for his sister at a special school nearby. Although he tries to keep his sister’s condition under wraps, his friends eventually find out, and to his surprise they end up loving and accepting her for who she is.
I personally enjoyed this novel. The story line is creative, the main character is likable, and the ending makes the story worthwhile. Despite being a “good boy”, the protagonist gets wrapped up in his friends’ crazy schemes to profit off of the illustrious life on Alcatraz. He has run-ins with the warden and a couple blow out fights with his family. Personally, I’m not big on realistic fiction, but I enjoyed this read. If realistic fiction is your thing, then this is a great novel for you. The end of the book will leave you with a pleasant surprise and a smile on your face.
One of the things I liked most about the novel was the main character’s struggle with his “odd” sister. As the author describes her unusual personality quarks, it becomes clear that Natalie has a disability. Natalie’s strange behaviors are described, but her condition is never named outright. I think the author did this to reach a wider range of people that might have experience with a loved one who has a disability. Many young adults in a similar situation can easily identify with the main character’s struggles. Even though their loved one’s condition might not be the same as Natalie’s, they can still relate to the way their life is different because of it. This story of a family struggling for normalcy in a time when people with disabilities were not socially accepted gives hope to those who find themselves in the same situation. The main character and his family finally learn to love Natalie for who she is and accept her for what she can or can’t do. Natalie ends up being a major character in the story who, despite her disability, still goes on adventures, makes new friends, has bad days, and experiences milestones of her own.
This book also teaches a lesson in friendship. People are not always what they seem, and if you give people a chance you might end up with a new friend. So goes the story for Matthew. After moving to Alcatraz he is unfortunately displeased to find out that the warden’s daughter is irresistibly cute and equally as troublesome. Her bossy personality, knack for getting in trouble, and pesky charm often get the main character stuck in a pickle. Though at many points in the story he is sure he hates her, in the end he realizes just how important Piper’s friendship has been.
I would recommend reading this book in any middle school classroom. Its light-hearted adventures and relatable characters appeal to a wide range of young adolescents. Among the pages full of adventures the reader also sees a lesson unfold. This lesson teaches you to love people for who they are, accept help from others when you need it, and admit when things are falling apart. Even when times seem desperate, help can come from some of the most unexpected places. And, oh yea, this book teaches you a thing or two about life on an island full of the world’s most dangerous criminals. Who wouldn’t like to say, “Al Capone Does My Shirts”? Check out Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko to see why it comes in handy to have criminals do your laundry.