Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Image from

Penguin Group, 2004

It’s 1935 and 12 year old Moose is less than enthusiastic about his new home. His father has gotten a job at the maximum security prison on Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco and the family has to live on the island. Moose wishes they could just move back to Santa Monica, but he knows that his father took these jobs so that Moose’s sister, Natalie, can go to a special school. Moose’s mother desperately wants Natalie to have a “normal” life and the rest of the family is swept up in the cause. The strict warden warns Moose that under no circumstances should Moose talk to or about the notorious gangster, Al Capone, or any of the other dangerous criminals imprisoned on Alcatraz. As if his life wasn’t complicated enough, Moose finds himself tangled in the money-making schemes of Piper, the beautiful, but mischievous and spoiled daughter of the warden. Moose doesn’t want to be responsible for Natalie. He doesn’t want to have to dodge Piper. All he wants to do is make friends, play baseball, and go back to his old life. Why can’t Moose have a life like everyone else? 

This coming of age story, named a Newbery Honor Book and American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, is written from Moose’s point of view, which deftly navigates between humor and heart-felt emotions. Readers will be lured by the sensational subject matter (gangsters and criminals!), but ultimately it is Moose’s realizations about life, love, and truth that provides the satisfying conclusion to this story. Employees and their families really did live on Alcatraz during the 1930’s and the information in the author’s note at the end of the book provides more information on the facts behind this fictional story. The note also includes information about Natalie, noting that today she would probably be diagnosed with autism. Sources are cited at the end of the book.

Listen to an excerpt of the audio book version read by Kirby Heyborne.

*Have each child choose a famous criminal who was imprisoned on Alcatraz and make a card for them as Teresa does in the book.

*Take a field trip to Alcatraz. If you don’t live close enough to take a tour in person, check out the National Park Service website to see pictures of the island. 

*Learn more about Alcatraz and Al Capone on Gennifer Choldenko’s website. Pair this book with non-fiction books about Alcatraz:
            Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock by Claire Rudolf Murphy
            The Secrets of Alcatraz (Mysteries Unwrapped) by Susan Sloate, Illustrated by Josh Cochran

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Holes by Louis Sacher

*Read more about Moose and life on Alcatraz in the sequels:
            Al Capone Shines My Shoes
            Al Capone Does My Homework (to be released in 2013)

*More books by Gennifer Choldenko
            If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
            No Passengers Beyond This Point
            Notes From a Liar and Her Dog

Age 11+ / Grade 6+



  1. Yes, I can imagine how with the theme of gangsters this could be quite popular with some.

    1. I was actually blindsided by much of the plot because the synopsis on the edition I read focused almost completely on the sensationalism of living on Alcatraz.