|Last week, I shared some fun tidbits from a Gennifer Choldenko event I went to. While I was there, I bought her newest book, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. This is the sequel to her Newbery honor book, Al Capone Does My Shirts. Shirts was an enormously wonderful and successful book, and I know there was a lot of buzz about how can she top it? But this sequel delivers, and all the reviewers agree.
Both books feature Moose Flanagan, a 12-year-old kid whose family lives on Alcatraz in the 1930s because his father is a guard/electrician for the prison. Moose’s mom and sister with autism (though it wasn’t named/diagnosed in those days) round out the family, and colorful convicts and other civilian families fill out the cast of characters.
Me with Gennifer Choldenko (right)
Photo: Dara Dokas
I loved Shirts (and it was the favorite book all year of the 6th-grade book club I led several years ago), and I was so excited to read Shoes. And I loved it, too. Mostly because it’s just such a good book. I’m not drawn to historical fiction, but I love wonderful stories set in times and places that come to life for me because of the stories set there. And an island prison? That’s a setting that’s hard to beat.
But I also connect with the book in other ways. Moose’s family is defined by his sister Natalie. She’s different, she’s not understood, and their family life is all about accomodating her, protecting her, and trying to cure her. I grew up with a close family member with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but back then, this brain disorder didn’t have a name and it wasn’t treatable. People just figured anybody who washed their hands hundreds of times every day was crazy. I remember all the tears, the looks, the questions…visiting her one year in a group home at Christmas…Today I have another close family member with a different kind of brain disorder (one that is named, but controversially diagnosed and not easily treated), one that makes daily life extremely challenging, to say the least. So Moose and his family really touch my heart. Their struggle feels close to home for me.
In Shoes, Al Capone has done a favor for Moose, a favor that helps Natalie. And so Moose is in Al Capone’s debt–not a good place to be. That favor, and the high stakes it has for Moose, sets up a fantastic conflict. And I can so sympathize with Moose. If I thought Al Capone could have helped any of my family members with various illnesses, I probably would have done the same thing Moose did.
One of the other things I love about this book is the rag-tag group of kids who are Moose’s friends and not-so-great friends. Kids on Alcatraz didn’t have the luxury of parents who would happily tote them across town for a playdate. Nope. You hung out with whoever lived nearby. That’s how my childhood was, too, and I didn’t even live in a prison. So there’s this set of kids of different age and social status on Alcatraz who have all sorts of conflicts, but they’re stuck with each other. That sets up all kinds of great situations and relationships. And those relationships between the kids–the hurt feelings, the crushes, the jealousies–they feel so real. So right.
Shoes is funny, dramatic, tense, and warm all in turns. I think it’s one of those rare books that will appeal equally to guys and girls, and I hope you’ll read it and love it as much as I do.