Al Capone

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Historical Fiction
Reading level: 4.7
Interest level: 6-8th grade

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a Newbery Honor book, written in 2004. It tells of 12 year old Moose Flanagan, son of a guard on Alcatraz Island in 1935. Moose’s family lives on the island, along with other guards’ families and the warden’s family. The Flanagan family has come here from Santa Monica to try to enroll Moose’s sister, Natalie, in a school for autistic children.

Moose is trying to live a normal 12 year old boy’s life. He makes friends at school and enjoys baseball. His life is complicated by three women: his mother, his sister, and the warden’s daughter, Piper. Piper is a very pretty, unscrupulous classmate who is intrigued by the convicts living so close by yet untouchable. One such convict is Al Capone. Piper contrives schemes to make money off of her classmates by claiming that, for a nickel, she can have Al Capone do their laundry.

As the book progresses and Mrs. Flanagan’s delusions of curing her daughter take up more of her time, Moose becomes more responsible for taking care of Natalie. He is conflicted with his love for his sister, his need for time with his friends, and the dutifulness of a son fighting the resentfulness that comes from too much responsibility at a young age. Mrs. Flanagan insists that Natalie is 10 years old. However, even a convict could see that she is closer to sixteen ….

My first impression of Al Capone does my shirts is that the language is crass. It only lasts a page or two, but definitely sets the tone of a 12 year old boy resentful of being taken away from his friends to live on a “12 acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.” (pg. 1) What joy my 11 year old boy would have to read that first sentence. Naughtiness has always been a hook for him. It is to this 10-12 audience this book is targeted. It tempts you with the subject matter of a boy living within yards of Al Capone and describing what it was like for these guard’s families to be isolated and needing to entertain themselves within the strict rules of the warden. It then works in the increasing responsibility of a 12 year old boy taking care of his 16 year old severely autistic sister. The younger children are accepting of Natalie and call her their friend. Piper typically tries to use her to her advantage. Moose is protective of Natalie both physically and trying to shield her from gossip.

This book is the winner of the Newbery Award and California Young Reader medal. The sequel is Al Capone Shines my Shoes.

Choldenko, G. (2004). Al Capone Does My Shirts (1st ed.). New York, NY: GP Putnam’s Sons.