Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko

I read Al Capone Does My Shirts by the same author last February, and I thought it was a good premise, well-executed. A group of kids living on Alcatraz Island in the 1930’s learn to get along with each other and to co-exist with the convicts who share their island home. Moose is the protagonist, an easy-going kid who loves and protects his autistic sister Natalie even though her behavior is sometimes difficult to understand and to explain to others.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes continues the story of Moose, Natalie, their parents and Moose’s other friends on Alcatraz. Natalie has been accepted into The Esther Marinoff School, a special school for mentally handicapped children, and Moose think that his letter appealing to Al Capone for help in getting her admitted was the deciding factor. So he owes the infamous convict something. However, Moose’s dad tells him to treat the cons with respect but never to trust them and never to owe them anything. Moose finds out too late that his dad’s advice is good, and as he deals with Al Capone’s demands for recompense, Moose also has to figure out how he feels about the warden’s daughter, Piper, and what he’s going to do about it.

This second book about Moose and his mysterious relationship with Al Capone felt darker and more troubled than the first book. Moose is growing up, and he gets himself into some real trouble in this book. I would go so far as to use the term “moral ambiguity” to describe the atmosphere of the story. For Moose there is no clear right or wrong decision in most of the choices he must make over the course of the book. Moose must choose whether to help, and perhaps become indebted to, a convicted felon, or lose his sister’s last chance at getting an education and a more normal life. He has to lie and connive and deceive, all to protect Natalie and to keep his father’s job. And then it all backfires anyway.

Maybe the moral ambiguity in the book is a reflection of the ambiguity and mixed feelings inherent in dealing with a family member with autism. The word “autism” is never used in the story because, of course, it wasn’t an identified diagnosis back in the 1930’s. Author Gennifer Choldenko, in her author’s note at the end of the book, tell us a little bit about her own sister, Gina, who was identified as autistic. Then Ms. Choldenko writes this note about autism and its effects and prognosis:

“Though we still know surprisingly little about what causes autism, the treatment options have improved dramatically over the last fifteen years. The possibility of partial or even complete recovery from autism is greater now than it was when my sister was a kid. The chances of a life rich in its own rewards for children on the autism spectrum is much more likely today. For Gina, who died when she was eighteen, autism was a prison without a key. I like to think I’ve given my sister’s spirit a new life in the pages of these books.”

For a book about what it feels like to be autistic, I really prefer Anything But Typical, another Cybils nominee that I reviewed a few weeks ago. And for a book about what autistic children can do, despite or even because of their disability, check out last year’s London Eye Mystery. For siblings of children who are autistic, you can’t beat Cynthia Lord’s Rules, a Newbery Honor book in 2007.

Books about autism or featuring autistic characters
For children:
London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd.
Rules by Cynthia Lord.
Anything But Typical by Nora Leigh Baskin.
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork.
Emma Jean Lazurus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis. Semicolon review by Brown Bear Daughter here.
The Very Ordered Existence of Marilee Marvelous by Suzanne Crowley.

For adults:
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. Semicolon review here.
the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon. Semicolon review here.
Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach.
A Wild RIde Up the Cupboards by Ann Bauer.

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One or more of these books is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.

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