This 2005 Newbery Honor Book is reviewed by Rowan, age 13
Al Capone Does My Shirts is about Matthew, aka Moose, who lives on Alcatraz with his mother, who teaches music lessons; his father, who works as an electrician; and his autistic sister. I think this book provides a fascinating portrayal of life in Alcatraz in 1935. Many of the people that Moose interacts with do not believe that he lives on Alcatraz. Or else they are awed by that fact. Many of the children at Moose’s school believe his over-proportioned stories about what life in Alcatraz is like. Al Capone Does My Shirts also give an interesting view of life with an autistic sibling. Moose’s sister Natalie is autistic and she gets most of the attention of the house. Moose originally moved from Santa Monica to Alcatraz so his sister could go to a special school in San Francisco.
The prison warden’s daughter, Piper, comes up with many outlandish schemes to try and contact Al Capon, a famous prisoner, including trying to sneak into the prison cell area. Another scheme is to get kids at school to pay her to take their clothing in with her laundry, so that their clothes can be washed by the inmates, including Al Capone.
Piper, Moose, and their friends get in trouble with the warden for the scheme.
One of the main conflicts in the book is that everyone in Moose’s family pretends that Natalie is ten, when she’s actually sixteen. This is a problem because the school that they want her to go to only accepts kids much younger than she is. Moose has to write a letter Al Capone to get him to call the headmaster to get Natalie into the special school.
Spoiler alert: Al Capone gets the letter and calls the headmaster who then allows Natalie in the school.
Overall I think this was an excellent book. One of the things that surprised me was how real Natalie seemed to me despite her differences (she has trouble communicating, has tantrums, and doesn’t learn well).
Moose’s best qualities are that he was always looking out for sister, he tried to do what was right, and he had a lot of patience and flexibility to do what his Mom wanted him to do instead of what he wanted to do.
I learned what Alcatraz was like for the people living there, and I learned what the prisoners lives were like. The prisoners seemed to be fairly well trusted—they were waiters and did laundry, compared to books I read about the Holocaust.
I also read Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework. They are the sequels.