Friday, April 9, 2010

Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Choldenko, Gennifer. 2009. Al Capone Shines My Shoes. New York: Dial.

The year is 1935 and 12-year old Moose Flanagan and his sister, Natalie, are still living with their parents on Alcatraz Island where Moose's dad is a prison guard.  The famous mobster, Al Capone is still in residence as well.  In Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone  helped Moose by engineering Natalie's acceptance into a special-needs school in San Francisco.  The action in Al Capone Shines My Shoes begins when Moose receives a note in his prison-laundered clothing, "your turn."

Moose narrates the events that follow this missive from the powerful Al Capone, and there is plenty of action and suspense to satisfy readers.  However, this book has far more to offer.  As historical fiction, its location and period is certainly unique to the genre.  What child wouldn't be interested in life on Alcatraz Island when Al Capone resided there?  It's also a glimpse into a bygone era where 12-year-old kids can chaperone younger children on day-long trips in San Francisco and spend most of their time unsupervised, no modern "helicopter parents" appear in this book. For better or worse, life was just different back then.

But what truly makes this a great book, is the relationship and depth of the younger characters.  Rarely is there a children's book that offers insight into so many characters.  By the end of Al Capone Shines My Shoes, the reader will identify with all of the island's young inhabitants - Jimmy, Moose's best friend who struggles to keep up with Moose's athletic prowess and easy likability; Jimmy's little sister, Theresa, who is much smarter than her seven years belie; the beautiful and spoiled Piper, the warden's daughter who acts out to ease her own misery; Janet Trixle, the tagalong daughter of one of the island's officers, Annie, Moose's good-natured and athletic girl friend, the story's narrator, Moose, who is learning much about love and life, and of course, Natalie, his autistic sister. Natalie's role in this story is not the role of the disabled sister, however.  She is just another of the children.  Yes, her disability causes complications and tension, but every child causes complications and tension, and Natalie is just another child.  In the eyes of the Flanagans, and indeed, all of the local children, Natalie is simply Natalie - no better, no worse than anyone else.  And although the Esther P. Marinoff School may try to "cure" Natalie, the Flanagan's are the only ones with the proper prescription - love.

Al Capone, guard towers, prison escapes, baseball, mysterious notes, lies, cover-ups, adventure, love, honesty, friendship, responsibility - Gennifer Choldenko puts them all together brilliantly.

A discussion guide for the book may be found here.

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