Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Reviewed by Margo Dill, www.margodill.com, email@example.com
Middle-grade novel, historical fiction (1935)
12-year-old boy as main character
Rating: Can you say WOW!?
Short, short summary: Moose Flanagan lives on Alcatraz Island because his dad is a guard for the prison. The author, Gennifer Choldenko, lets us know with a great note at the end of the book that the staff actually did live on the island with their spouses and children. Al Capone Does My Shirts has a lot of accurate, fascinating history in it.
Back to the story. . .The Flanagans are an interesting, loving family, consumed by Moose’s sister’s, Natalie’s, health problems. Moose’s sister has autism. This book is much more about Moose and Natalie’s relationship than it is about Al Capone doing laundry, but the inmates are interesting characters, who do play a part in the story. Moose misses his old home and isn’t thrilled about living with the prisoners, but he learns to make the best of it, makes some friends, still plays baseball when he can, and has more responsibility for taking care of Natalie (which he is not so happy about, but he works through it.) He builds a special relationship with Natalie, and his parents believe Moose is one of the reasons why Natalie is communicating more. In the end, Moose writes a letter to Capone, asking him if there is any way the gangster can help Natalie get into this special school that will help her have a better future. Can Capone pull strings to get Natalie in when it seems no one else can?
So, what do I do with this book?
1. Historical fiction is wonderful for teaching students about a time period. Your students can gather facts about the 1930s from this book. They can also research and find out what was happening in other parts of the United States during this period. They can compare and contrast life on Alcatraz Island with life in New York City or San Francisco or your hometown once they have done some research in the library or on the Internet. Alcatraz Island also has a fascinating history. If students are interested in Alcatraz, you can allow students to research the prison and see if they can find more facts than Choldenko provided in her author’s note. They can add a paragraph or two to the author’s note.
2. Autism is a tough disease that effects millions of people. You may have someone in your school or family, who has autism. It is important to talk about Natalie’s actions in the story, so students can understand the facts surrounding autism and why Natalie acted the way she did in certain situations. You could invite an expert in autism to your classroom, so he could talk about all the current research and ways to help a student with autism that were not available in 1935 when Natalie was a girl. Students can write journal entries about the discussions you have about autism, about how it would feel to watch Natalie after school like Moose did, or about any questions they may still have or feelings this topic has brought to the surface.
3. Moose loves baseball, and Natalie loves her collection of buttons. Use this opportunity to talk to your students about their hobbies or collections. Hold a “Hobby Day” in your classroom. Let students bring in items that they use in their hobbies, or they could bring in a part of their collections. Students could write paragraphs about their hobbies and draw pictures to go with them. Sometimes, students and teachers don’t realize someone has an interesting hobby or collection at home. Hobby Day allows classmates to see a different side of each other.
If you have used this book in your classroom, please share with us activities you used. You can leave them under comments.
If you have a suggestion of a book you would like me to read and review, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment here.