I like an amusing book title as well as the next witch, and Al Capone Does My Shirts has a lot going for it. But if Gennifer Choldenko had only as much as breathed the word autism, when she sent me her book, or if Bloomsbury had thought to mention autism in the blurb, I’d have read this book seven months ago. As soon as it arrived, in fact, because of my particular interest in autistic fiction.
On the other hand, it made for a very pleasant surprise to find this gem nestling among my selected holiday reads, which were about the only part of my packing that had any care taken about it at all. By page two I knew in my heart that I was reading a novel about autism. Set in 1935 on Alcatraz, it never mentions the word autism, as it hadn’t been “invented” at the time, but no matter. Moose Flanagan, who is 12, has just moved to Alcatraz with his family, which includes his sister Natalie who is ten, for the fifth year running. Natalie loves buttons, maths and lemon cake. Moose has to help his parents by looking after his sister rather more then he would like.
Al Capone was on Alcatraz in 1935, and worked in the prison laundry; hence the title of the book. Even without the autism angle, this novel is wonderful, with a really good 1930s feel to it, and Alcatraz itself is fascinating. There’s so much happening here, and the book is crammed with information on life on the Rock during the Depression.
Gennifer has, by all accounts, done a lot of research, and it shows. Also, her sister was autistic, and Gennifer obviously knows what she is talking about here. Unusually for a children’s novel, you also get an author’s notes section which is very interesting.
Al Capone Does My Shirts is about the best autistic novel I’ve read, and I don’t feel Gennifer has any reason to feel intimidated by Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident. Gennifer tells me there’s a sequel on the way (with plans for a third book), and I can’t wait.