Al Capone Does My Shirts won a Newbery Honor Award in 2005, along with many, many other awards.
The story is told by Moose, a twelve-year old boy whose family has just moved to Alcatraz Island. His father works as a guard in the prison and his mother is preoccupied with getting his autistic sister into a special school.
In Moose's words:
"1935. I want to be on Alcatraz like I want poison oak on my private parts. But apparently nobody cares, because now I'm Moose Flanagan, Alcatraz Island Boy all so my sister can go to the Esther P. Marinoff School, where kids have macaroni salad in their hair and wear their clothes inside out and there isn't a chalkboard or a book in sight.
Good Moose. Obedient Moose. I always do what I'm supposed to do."
When Moose's family moves to Alcatraz so his father can work as a guard and his sister can attend a special school in San Francisco, Moose has to leave his friends and his winning baseball team behind. But it's worth it, right? If his sister, Natalie, can finally get help, maybe his family will finally be normal.
But as it turns out, life on Alcatraz is much more complicated than even Moose would have predicted. His dad is so busy, he's never around. His mom's preoccupation with Natalie's condition (today it would be called autism) is even worse now that there's no extended family to help with her tantrums and constant needs. And of course, there's never enough money.
When Moose meets Piper, the cute daughter of the Warden, he knows right off she's trouble. But she's also strangely irresistible. All Moose wants to do is protect Natalie, live up to his parent's expectations, and stay out of trouble. But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away.
Gennifer Choldenko worked as a copyeditor at an advertising firm after college and then studied illustration at an art school. She began pursuing her craft as a children's book author and eventually published both picture books and children's fiction.
She got the idea for Al Capone Does My Shirts when she read an announcement in the paper for a reunion of the people who had lived and worked on Alcatraz Island. She thought, "Wouldn’t it have been fun to grow up on Alcatraz with all the famous criminals? She began volunteering once a week as a tour guide to learn more about the island.
While serving on the island she thought about the inmates who would sit in their cells, listening to people on the mainland celebrating during the holidays and unable to participate in the revelry. The beauty of the island reminded her of her sister, who was also very beautiful. Her sister had autism and was locked inside her own world. She heard what was going on around her but was unable to participate. It was as if she were trapped on her own island. This inspired the character of Natalie, Moose's autistic sister.
Choldenko learned so much about Alcatraz that she wasn't able to include in Al Capone Does My Shirts. Luckily for her ardent fans, she was able to include more about Alcatraz--and many of the beloved characters of Al Capone Does My Shirts--in her stellar sequel, Al Capone Shines Shoes.
This is historical fiction at its best, with engaging characters, a fascinating setting, a poignant family drama, laced with humor and suspense.
Choldenko is hard at work on the final installment in this trilogy.