Spoiler-Free Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

“You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you’re me. I came here because my mother said I had to.”

Author: Gennifer Choldenko

I wasn’t expecting a middle school read with that title to be a heart touching story about two siblings learning to bond. You really can’t judge a book by its cover.

Moose is a normal twelve-year-old kid in 1935. He likes reading adventure stories and playing baseball with other boys his age. When his father gets a job as an electrition at Alcatraz prison, the whole family moves to Alcatraz island. To earn extra money, his mom starts teaching piano, which means Moose has to come straight home after school every day to babysit his sister. That would be bad enough if she were a normal sister, but Natalie has never been normal. “Autism” wasn’t a diagnosis yet, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t tell something is wrong with Natalie.

Can Moose learn to bond with the kids in his new neighborhood while looking after his sister?

I really liked the way Natalie’s ticks are portrayed in this book. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve worked in special education and the character of Natalie is handled really well. She’s not dumb, or foolish or even childlike. She just can’t connect with the world around her. She’s trapped in her own little world and that’s very true to the way autism works.

I also really like the author addressing some of the historical misconceptions about autism. There’s mention of a specialist telling her parents that Natalie was neglected after Moose was born as an explanation for her condition. Child neglect really was considered a factor in autism when it was first diagnosed, so that was a great touch! I also really like people dismissing Natalie, saying that the family should “put her somewhere” that really was a common attitude of the time.

I really like that Moose struggles with his sister’s autism, all too often “feel good” stories don’t acknowledge that it is exhausting to take care of someone with special needs. Moose loves his sister, but he’s exhausted and frustrated at having to take care of his older sister. It’s very human.

It’s a great middle school read. This is a great book to get kids to read something a bit deeper than they usually get. It all starts with historical fiction and baseball, and ends with a boy learning to connect and appreciate his special needs sister.

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