Monday, May 13, 2013

Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

214 p. Dial Books for Young Readers/ Penguin Young Readers Group, August 20, 2013. 9780803734722. (Arc provided by the author.) 

It's January, 1935 on Alcatraz Island. Moose Flanagan's dad has just been promoted to Assistant Warden and Moose thinks things might be looking up for the Flanagans until he discovers that the inmates have a game where they earn points for insulting employees, or worse, and the higher up the employee, the higher the points. As if that weren't enough to worry Moose the worrier, Darby Trixle was counting on getting that promotion and now he and his wife seem to be gunning for Natalie, especially after a suspicious fire guts the Flanagan's apartment.

Did Natalie set the blaze? Moose can't admit to his parents that he fell asleep when he was supposed to be watching Natalie. If she didn't set it, then who did? What does the message Moose found in a drainpipe mean? Where is Piper getting the money to buy presents for Moose and his friends? And, why is Al Capone, aka #85, writing cryptic messages in his notebook?

The author has created a unique, vivid, slightly surreal and claustrophobic world filled with memorable characters. Morally ambiguous folks reside on either side of the prison wall and Moose tries to parse it all while trying to protect those he loves. I just loved every second of this final book in the Tales from Alcatraz trilogy and was so tempted to swallow the thing whole. Personally, I wouldn't mind if this trilogy morphed into a quartet should the author find more to tell...

Moose Flanagan is one of my favoritest of favorite characters in children's literature. He's earnest and thoughtful, athletic and intelligent. He's also way, way wise and responsible beyond his years thanks to having an older sister who's autistic, although autism was not well understood back then. His parents, as nice as they are, rely on Moose to handle Natalie far too much. And Moose takes on far too much. He understands Natalie in ways adults do not, but that doesn't mean that he's also not baffled by her. Feelings between siblings can be fierce and complicated but none so fierce and complicated when anger and guilt are factored into the equation.

Though I read and fell in love with Al Capone Does My Shirts back in 2004, way before I started blogging, I may have mentioned once or twice how I was rooting for it to win the 2005 Newbery. I was lucky enough to receive an arc of its sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, which I adored just as much, if not more. I am not the most objective reviewer when it comes to Moose.

So here I am, gifted with an arc of Al Capone Does My Homework. I need to disclose that one of my students and I are credited with giving Ms. Choldenko the idea for the title. I can honestly state though, that I would've adored this book anyway. 

A bit of history: In 2006, I read a piece in Horn Book Magazine by Ron Koertge entitled, Unlikely Titles. His list tickled me, so I shared the article with my students and challenged them to come up with some unlikely titles of their own. Al Capone Does My Homework was one of the better submissions. I don't recall how I let Ms. Choldenko know about it, but she remembered (!) and wrote (back in 2008 or so) to ask if I could credit the student so she could send him or her an arc of Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Unfortunately, the student I thought wrote it said he hadn't. He couldn't recall who did and I didn't keep the papers. Lost, lost, lost. This student would now be completing his sophomore year in college. Perhaps he or she will see the book in a book store this August and think, "Huh! What a coincidence. I remember when Mrs. Kahn had us make up some unlikely titles and look at that!" Maybe this student will send me an email. Then, I could heap accolades upon this student and get him or her in touch with the author and we would all live happily ever after.

The connections we all make are kind of cool. The trilogy is fine storytelling. Just today, a fifth grader noticed the arc on my desk and said, "Wait, is that a NEW Al Capone book?" Multiple copies are on my order for the next school year and should be on yours as well.

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