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In pop culture, YADA-YADA usually means "blah, blah, blah" or "more of the same." For this blog, YADA-YADA is an acronym meaning "Young Adult Discussions About Young Adult-Designed Art." Check out my summaries and reviews of teen media. Chime in and let me know what you think!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Blog No. 35--Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

GENRE: Historical Fiction for YA Low Readers (or Juvenile)

Title: Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko

Bibliographic Information:
Pub. Date: 2004 (HC); 2006 (PB)
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated (PB)
Format: Paperback, 240pp
Age Range: 10 and up
ISBN-13: 9780142403709
ISBN: 0142403709

Awards (too numerous to mention all):
Best Book for Young Adults
2005 CBC-NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
ALA Notable Book
American Literacy Corporation Literary Choice Award
Book Sense Pick of the List Summer 2004
Borders Original Voice
California Library Association Beatty Award
California Library Association Focal Award
Capital Choices Noteworthy Books for Children
Carnegie Medal, short-listed (UK)
Chicago Public Library Best of the Best
Journal de Mickey Award
Judy Lopez Honor Award
Junior Library Guild Selection
Keystone State Reading Association YA Book Award
Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
London Times and NASEN
Newbury Medal Honor Book
New York Library Best 100 Books for Reading and Sharing
New York Library’s 2005 Books for the Teen Age
New York Times Bestseller List for more than 6 months
Northern California Book Award
Parents' Choice Silver Medal
Publisher's Weekly Best Book of the Year
San Francisco Chronicle Top Ten Children's Books of 2004
Scholastic Book Club (Literature Circle) Selection
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Special Needs Award (UK)
YALSA Selected Books for Young Adults

Reader’s Annotation:
Moose Flanagan's life changes drastically when his father takes a job as a prison guard on Alcatraz Island so that his special needs’ sister Natalie can attend a special school in San Francisco. All he hopes to do is stay out of trouble—a difficult task when he meets the gossip-mongering Piper, the Warden's daughter, who lets him in on a big secret—that the notorious gangster, Al Capone will be imprisoned on the island.

Plot Summary:
It is 1935, a tough time in America. The Great Depression is still a part of the landscape, and jobs are hard to get. Yet, Moose Flanagan is happy with his friends, and his winning baseball team. Moose is known as the “responsible” one—as Natalie often says, he is “Good Moose, obedient Moose.” All of that changes when his father, a prison guard, accepts a job at Alcatraz so that his older sister, Natalie, a special needs’ child, can attend a special school in San Francisco. Natalie’s condition, which is undefined in much of the book (largely because in the thirties there was no name for it yet) causes some problems for the family, because so many of her actions are looked upon by most of society at the time as being socially unacceptable (bouts of silence mixed with intense screaming, repeating phrases she hears over and over again, and her inability as a sixteen-year-old girl to cope with the normal teenage concerns like boys). Arriving at Alcatraz, Moose just wants to stay out of trouble. However, this becomes an almost impossible task when Natalie is denied acceptance to the special school, and Moose has to keep a close eye on her. Moose is one of the few people Natalie relates to, and the change in her environment, especially the closed-in setting of Alcatraz, unnerves her. Making matters worse is Piper, the Warden’s daughter, who is candy-sweet to her father, and wickedly manipulative to everyone else. Moose for some reason, is attracted to her and despises her at the same time. Piper makes life difficult for everyone—especially Moose, who tries unsuccessfully to stand up to her demands to get him involved in her laundry scheme to make extra money. Piper collects laundry from their classmates and charges them extra, saying that she is able to get the renowned convict, Al Capone, to actually clean their clothes. Of course, this is not true—yet—but Piper likes to be in control, and control everyone around her. Moose gets sucked into her scheme in order to protect his sister, and protect his father’s job. It is a no-win situation, because what they are doing is breaking the Warden’s rules; yet, if he doesn’t Piper will make up some story to cause his father to lose his job. Eventually, Moose defies the Warden and makes a special deal with Al Capone himself.

Critical Evaluation:
Choldenko’s second novel (her first is Notes from a Liar and Her Dog) won the Newbury Honor prize in 2005. Although the Newbury Medal is generally given for a Juvenile book, I find this book to be a better fit for the young adult market. Despite the fact that the protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy, Moose Flanagan seems much older, and deals with many adult situations, due to the fact that he lives in the time of the Great Depression, and has to take care of his sister, Natalie, a sixteen-year-old girl who has autism, which at the time was not a known condition. There are several situations involving references to sex and rape, which makes this book better for the YA audience.

That said, I found this book to be utterly entertaining, extremely sensitive and smartly written. Choldenko’s style fits ANY reader. In terms of reading level, this book is appropriate for fifth grade and up; however, its content is also of interest to the younger high school audience. I find this a great book for anyone who wants to understand special needs’ children and their families. I was extremely touched by this book, and have recommended it to several high school students despite their reading abilities. Every student that I told about it and read it found it delightful and interesting, even though the protagonist is a few years their junior. To me, this book transcends age, and should be on everyone’s reading list, as its message—being responsible, doing what’s right despite peer pressure, and standing up to bullies and criminals in any form—is a message everyone can benefit from in this day and age. The book also paints a wonderful picture of Alcatraz when it was a functioning prison, and Choldenko’s attention to the historic detail is evident in this book.

Reading level/Interest Age:
The publisher states this reading level is for ages 10 and over, but I would say that ten-year-olds reading this book need a certain amount of maturity to deal with it. Yet, I think everyone, including adults, will enjoy the humor and sensitivity of this book. Every high school student to whom I have recommended this book has loved it, and most are over 13.

Information about the Author:
Gennifer Choldenko was born in 1957 in Santa Monica, California, and graduated from Newbury Park High School in the Conejo Valley area of Ventura County. She grew up the youngest in a family of four children, with parents who enjoyed entertaining.

According to her website, http://www.choldenko.com/, Gennifer states that her ability to tell stories started when she was six years old. Her family was at a dinner party, and she was the youngest sitting at the kid’s table. To get attention, she began making up weird and funny stories, which she says she continues to this day.

Gennifer writes both novels and picture books. The second book in the Capone trilogy, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, came out in September 2009, and the third will be out in 2011.

Curriculum Ties:
Can be a great tie in with American history, particularly the Great Depression. It could be a companion book for To Kill a Mockingbird in the 9th grade core literature area, or as a substitute for TKAM for ELL students, as it is more accessible, but still has a similar theme and setting.

Booktalking Ideas:
What was it like to live during the Great Depression—and during the times when notorious gangsters were dotting the American landscape? What would it be like if suddenly, you were to find yourself living on the same island with one of the most notorious gangsters of them all—Al Capone! This humorous and touching tale is the story of Moose Flanagan, a mature twelve-year-old boy who finds himself living on Alcatraz with a sister who is misunderstood, and a warden’s daughter who attracts trouble like bees attract honey—except it is usually other people who get stung!

Challenge Issues:
There are references to sex and rape in this book, although it is tastefully handled. Because it has been a highly awarded book, I’m not certain anyone would truly challenge it.

Why I Included This Book:
I read this book after I met Gennifer Choldenko at my first CSLA conference in 2008. I found out there that she attended the high school where I currently teach—Newbury Park—and I got her to sign a copy of the book for our students. When I read the book, I realized it was more than a juvenile novel—it has merit for all ages, and it makes important statements about love, tolerance and acceptance from which any age may benefit.

Cover image courtesy of: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Al-Capone-Does-My-Shirts/Gennifer-Choldenko/e/9780142403709

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