Literary Criticism and Significance
Al Capone Does My Shirts was published in 2004 and is especially notable for its historically accurate presentation of a unique place and time. The author, Gennifer Choldenko, has done extensive research into the conditions on Alcatraz during the twenty-nine years it housed an active, maximum-security federal prison. She provides an interesting and comprehensive summary of her findings in a note at the end of the book.
The prison at Alcatraz was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the first half of the twentieth century, including Machine Gun Kelly, Roy Gardner, and Al Capone. In 1935, when the story takes place, the families of most of the prison guards and other workers were required to live on the island, separated from but in close proximity to the prisoners. The children in these families attended school across the water in San Francisco, as do Moose Flanagan and his friends. Otherwise a whole village, which included a post office, grocery store, and bowling alley, was established on the island to meet the families’ immediate needs. Choldenko has done a superb job in creating a portrait of what life must have been like for the children who lived on the island during that period, recapturing succinctly the excitement and hardships associated with their unusual living situation.
The author, through the characterization of Natalie Flanagan, also offers an especially sensitive portrayal of an autistic child as she relates to her family. Although autism as such had not yet been specifically identified in 1935, Natalie’s symptoms are consistent with what would today be classified as autism spectrum disorder, and the challenges thus presented are realistic and, for the most part, accurate. Although Natalie’s character is “wholly fictional,” she was inspired by the author’s sister, who had “a severe form of autism.” This may be why Natalie is portrayed with such tenderness and humanity.
Al Capone Does My Shirts is fast moving and enjoyable, and the characters are well developed, believable, and intriguing. Moose Flanagan, the narrator and protagonist, is especially likable, and his down-to-earth language and lively sense of humor will resonate with young adult readers. The book was the recipient of a Newbery Honor Award in 2004, and in 2009 the author wrote a sequel titled Al Capone Shines My Shoes.