Thursday, December 2, 2010

Al Capone Does My Shirts

I just read two amazing books long after I should have read them, but I stayed up late and got up early to finish them, reading them back to back. If you haven't read Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts, and its sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, you have an exciting reading experience ahead of you. I don't know why it took me so long. Maybe since I've been teaching high school, I've been more focused on YA. Maybe I'd heard about the first book (published in 2004, so while I was teaching middle school) as "a book about autism" so I didn't make it a priority. Which is shameful enough in itself, but even more wrong because these are not novels about autism. They are about Moose Flanagan, whose family moves from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island (outside San Francisco) so Moose's dad can take a job--really two jobs--as electrician and guard at Alcatraz, and Moose's sister Natalie can go to a special school in San Francisco. Natalie is different--now, in 2010, her condition would probably be diagnosed as a form of autism, but in 1935, when the novels take place, she is dismissed as "weird," "retarded," and other things just as bad and worse. It is suggested--and would be the typical thing to do at that time--that Moose's family should put her in an asylum, but Moose's family has rallied around Natalie, especially his mother, who wants to try everything possible--maybe not to "fix" her, but to let her have some kind of life. So they uproot themselves and move to Alcatraz.

But while these books are in large part about Moose's family and the ways in which they adapt to live with and care for Natalie (and that part of the story is moving and complex and fabulous, by the way) they are also about a middle-school boy who, in the middle of his seventh grade year, leaves his friends to live on Alcatraz Island, famous prison and home to many murderers, kidnappers, and other infamous criminals. Alcatraz is sort of the setting of the story, but I would say that's also a major player, one of the characters.

These books are awesome. Read them. I don't think I have more to say about them right now.

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