When I bought this book last year, I had heard so much about it, and was eager to read it. Besides that, the giant Newbery sticker on it was just a hint it might be good. I was debating which of my kids I could wrangle into reading with me, and chose my older daughter since it seemed a little more age appropriate for her. She’s 11. She balked. She looked at me like I was crazy. Not because I wanted to read with her, but because she didn’t like the looks of this book. So it sat on my shelf, waiting for her to be ready.
A week or so ago, she tells me, apropos of nothing, that Al Capone Does My Shirts is one of her teacher’s all-time favorite books. And I know that this teacher is also one of her favorites. Really? I say. Oh, yes. Can we read it together, she asks. Let me just say here that as a parent, that makes me feel, in a small way, that I have done my job. Of course, we dropped our other books, and went to Alcatraz, 1935. We met a strange band of characters (both outside and inside the cells), but a very likable bunch, all in all. That’s especially good, since there are more books after this, I’m told. We did have some tense moments with some frustrating parent-child scenes, and I was almost stunned to realize that for the first time in a very long time, I was arguing the child’s side of the story. I was 12 again for a little while, and Moose’s life was just completely UNFAIR! He tried so hard, and he really did his best. His mother, on the other hand, was not always a perfect example of motherhood (which is good, at least for me). But Choldenko does a beautiful job of showing what lengths a parent will go to give their child a chance in this world. It’s not always pretty, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Of course, I cried buckets towards the end, while my daughter rolled her eyes at me and said, you’re not crying, are you? No, dust in my eye. Get me the box of tissues. Must be allergies. I read about the mother weeping, the father crying so hard he can’t see, all while I sniffled and wiped away blobs of mascara washing down my cheeks.
Alcatraz is a fascinating enough subject all by itself. I learned things from this book that I didn’t know, even though I’ve been there and taken the tour. The author offers extra information in the back, about what was real in the story, and what went on with Al Capone. But in the end, what I found most compelling about this book was how the author took this storied fortress built on rock, and gave it a heart.