Al Capone Does My Shirts
By Gennifer Choldenko, read by Kirby Heyborne
Published 2009 by Listening Library
Moose Flanagan did not want to move to Alcatraz - are you crazy? Who in their right mind wants to live on an island with the worst criminals in the country? But Moose is 13 and doesn't really have a lot of say in where his family moves. After all, it's 1935, jobs are hard to come by and Moose's dad has just landed one on Alcatraz. So, off they go. Add to this the fact that Moose's sister Natalie needs to go a special school, Moose is a little bit smitten with the warden's daughter, and, oh yeah, those cons all over the place, and you have a recipe for a very interesting book.
This book has been on my radar since it first came out and I was working in the children's section of an indie bookstore. As per usual, I never got around to reading it. So, when I recently weeded the library's copy of the audio version, I figured I'd take it first and give it a listen. Plus, it's read by Kirby Heyborne, who won an Odyssey award for doing Rotters, an audiobook I did not enjoy, so I wanted to give him a second shot. I listened to this during my commute to and from work and found it a pretty enjoyable listen, for the most part. I thought Moose's voice was very authentic - I have to use my imagination there since I've never been a 13-year-old boy in the 1930s living on Alcatraz - but it felt believable to me. As a matter of fact, I loved all the characters, even Piper, who I actually hated. That probably doesn't make a lot of sense but what I'm getting at is that Choldenko has crafted some really neat characters that I actually want to read about, even when they drive me bonkers like Piper did. Piper may be a bit too over the top for my liking, but on the whole, I thought Choldenko did a great job with characterization.
Setting is another strong suit here - who wouldn't want to read about a kid growing up on Alcatraz? I mean, there's your hook for selling this book to kids - imagine living among the most dangerous criminals in the country. BAM! Every kid who heard you say that wants to read this book. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and it's clear that Choldenko has done extensive research (which is highlighted by the author's note at the end of the novel). Here is another aspect of the book with a high believability factor.
Plotwise, this is where the book falls down a little for me. This is a great book - funny and emotional and exciting and you learn something, too! But it's not a perfect book. What didn't work so well for me is that I felt this book wasn't sure what it wanted to be - an adventure story about a kid growing up in Al Capone's shadow or a historical story about growing up with an autistic sister (Natalie's condition would likely be diagnosed as autism these days). There is no rule that says it has to be one or the other and not both, but, for me, I think either of these stories separately might have been stronger than the both of them together. They didn't fit together as well as I would have hoped, and that makes this book fall just a bit short for me.
Don't get me wrong - I still really liked this book (I even went on to listen to the second) and will gladly suggest this to kids looking for a good historical fiction or funny book.