Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Al Capone Does my Shirts

Al Capone Does my Shirts

Gennifer Choldenko
Fiction  Series
For ages 12 and up
Penguin, 2004   ISBN: 978-0399238611

Moose cannot believe that he and his family are actually living on Alcatraz Island. Who on earth lives in a prison anyway – aside from convicts of course. And yet here he is with his mother, his father, and his sister Natalie. Natalie is the reason why they are here for her parents hope to be able to enroll her in a special boarding school in San Francisco, a special school where she might learn how to manage in the real world; for Nat is autistic and often retreats into herself to get away from a world that she does not understand. The children’s mother has tried everything, including voodoo and prayers, in the hope that something will help her child.

So here they are. Moose’s father works two jobs in the prison, his mother teaches piano lessons, and Moose is stuck taking care of his older and yet much younger sister. His life is complicated further by the fact that he has to share Alcatraz Island with the warden’s daughter Piper. More than anything Piper wants to get to meet some of the convicts, especially the infamous Al Capone. She also has a fondness for “projects” most of which are against the rules. Moose hates breaking rules and he does his best to stay away from the beguiling and ruthless Piper and her schemes.

Most of all Moose struggles to deal with Natalie and how much the girl turns his family upside down. Moose and his mother cannot seem to find a common ground, the boy finding his mother’s obsessions frustrating and hard to understand. On the one hand Moose loves his sister, and on the other he cannot bear to be around her. If only Natalie could get into the special school, then maybe the family could live a sort of normal life and yet the chances are not looking good. Not only is Natalie too old for the school, but she is also extremely difficult to manage and Moose cannot help thinking that she is always going to be a loveable, impossible problem for him and his parents.

Against the backdrop of life on 1930’s Alcatraz Island, the author has created a stunning tour de force which beautifully, sometimes painfully, reveals how hard it is to live with an autistic child. Bit by bit Moose’s ambivalent feelings for his sister are peeled back until, at last, he takes the step to try to find a real and lasting way to help the sister he loves so much. Moose’s struggles with his new life, with growing up, and with his sister and her problems are poignant, sometimes funny, and perfectly spun out to create a compelling story packed with surprises.