Al Capone Does My Shirts (Tales from Alcatraz)

by Gennifer Choldenko

Paperback, 2006



Local notes

PB Cho


Puffin Books (2006), Edition: Illustrated, 288 pages


A twelve-year-old boy named Moose moves to Alcatraz Island in 1935 when guards' families were housed there, and has to contend with his extraordinary new environment in addition to life with his autistic sister.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

7.75 inches


0142403709 / 9780142403709



Media reviews

Children's Literature
Author Choldenko has written a funny and clever middle grade novel about a boy named Matthew (Moose) Flanagan who is living on Alcatraz Island with his family. The family has moved to the Island because Moose's father has found work as an electrician, and because his sister Natalie, who is autistic, can go to a good school nearby. Moose is not happy about living on the island, especially after meeting the Warden's daughter Piper who is bossy and a bit of a troublemaker. Moose's father has warned him to stay out of trouble because he needs this job and Natalie needs to go to the special school. Moose's life becomes miserable when Piper involves him and a few other island kids in a moneymaking scheme to have their schoolmates' clothes laundered by the convicts on Alcatraz Island. Piper tempts her school chums by claiming that Al Capone, the famous gangster, may even wash their shirts. The scheme falls apart when the Warden finds out what his daughter and friends are up to. Then, to make matters worse, the school that Natalie attends doesn't want her and she has to come home. Moose winds up watching her and has to forego his Monday after-school baseball game. This is an amusing book about interesting characters placed in a different and unlikely setting and trying to make the best of their situation. 2004, G. P. Putnam's Sons, Ages 10 up.
2 more
In 1935, notorious gangster Al Capone is one of three hundred convicts housed in the maximum-security penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan also lives on the island. His father has taken a position as an electrician and guard at the prison in hopes that Moose's sister, Natalie, will be accepted at a special school in nearby San Francisco. Not only has Moose been forced to leave friends behind and move with his family to a fortress island, but he also cannot play baseball or make new friends now because he is stuck taking care of his sister whenever he is not in school. Natalie is afflicted with the condition now known as autism, and even at age sixteen, she cannot be left unsupervised. Everyone in the family has been under a strain because of Natalie's special needs. Meanwhile Piper, the warden's pretty, spoiled daughter, makes life complicated for Moose. The island's residents have their laundry done by the convicts, and thrill-seeking Piper drags Moose into her wild stunt of marketing Al Capone's laundry services to their middle school classmates in San Francisco. But when his family desperately needs a break in their efforts to get help for Natalie, Moose knows that only Piper has the connections and the audacity to help him pull off a reckless scheme involving the island's most famous inmate. Choldenko, author of Notes from a Liar and Her Dog (Putnam's, 2001/VOYA August 2001), weaves three As—Alcatraz, Al Capone, and autism—into an excellent historical novel for middle-grade readers. A large, annotated 1935 photograph of Alcatraz Island and an informative author's note give substance to the novel's factual sources. VOYA Codes: 4Q 4P M J (Betterthan most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 240p., Ages 11 to 15.
Library Journal
Gr 6-8-In this appealing novel set in 1935, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family move from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island where his father gets a job as an electrician at the prison and his mother hopes to send his autistic older sister to a special school in San Francisco. When Natalie is rejected by the school, Moose is unable to play baseball because he must take care of her, and her unorthodox behavior sometimes lands him in hot water. He also comes to grief when he reluctantly goes along with a moneymaking scheme dreamed up by the warden's pretty but troublesome daughter. Family dilemmas are at the center of the story, but history and setting-including plenty of references to the prison's most infamous inmate, mob boss Al Capone-play an important part, too. The Flanagan family is believable in the way each member deals with Natalie and her difficulties, and Moose makes a sympathetic main character. The story, told with humor and skill, will fascinate readers with an interest in what it was like for the children of prison guards and other workers to actually grow up on Alcatraz Island.-Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
2005 was a stellar year for Newbery Award winning books. Al Capone Does My Shirts joins two of my favorites, Kira Kira which won the medal and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boys which was another honor winner that year.

The setting is 1935 when twelve year old Moose Flanagan moves with his family to Alcatraz prison. His father has a new job as a guard and an electrician on the island. Moose is having a difficult time adjusting, but the learning curve is not as steep as it is for his autistic sister Natalie.

While Moose struggles to make new friends and learn the ropes, his parents seek resources for Natalie, which are very limited in 1935. The beauty of this coming of age story is the realistic and brilliant depiction of autism and a family trying to meet the needs of a special child while struggling not to neglect their son.

This is a well researched novel of life on Alcatraz, and because the author has a sister who is autistic, she accurately and authentically weaves a wonderful tale of complicated dynamics and of love that shines through the imperfections of all family members.
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LibraryThing member abbylibrarian
Moose Flannagan has just moved to Alcatraz. No, he's not a prisoner, he's just a kid. His dad has gotten a job as an electrician on the island with the hopes that he will earn enough money to send Moose's sister Natalie to a special school. Natalie is... different. Sometimes she's off in her own little world. She's great with numbers, but not great at interacting with people. Moose's mother has tried everything to help her and, Moose finds out, she will stop at nothing to cure her little girl. But Moose isn't so sure that his mom knows what's best for Natalie. And he might be the only one who can really stick up for her... if he's brave enough.

This book was completely different from what I thought it would be. I found the relationships between the characters, especially between Moose and his sister, to be the real driving force of the novel. The 1930s setting doesn't come into it a whole lot except for the fact that Al Capone is on the island and their attempts to treat Natalie's autism. There is also an arch-nemesis/crush to rival Sheila from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
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LibraryThing member bragan
This kids' novel tells the story of 12-year-old Moose, who goes to live on the island of Alcatraz in 1935 with his electrician/prison guard father, his mother, and his sister Natalie, who is autistic (not that that word or that diagnosis existed in 1935). It's a good, solid kids' story, one that captures the day-to-day experience of being a kid quite well, and also handles the day-to-day experience of dealing with a family member with special needs well. It's not, I think, the kind of kids' book that still holds a special appeal to adults, but even so, I did find the historical details interesting, and appreciated the author's note in the back explaining how accurate all of it was. (The answer is "very," which is nice.)

Rating: This is a little hard to rate, because from my adult perspective, the reading experience was OK, but my life would have been no poorer if I'd skipped it. But I would unhesitatingly recommend it for kids. So I'm going to try to be objective, consider the target audience, and call it a 4/5 kids' novel.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Moose Flanagan's father got a job at Alcatraz prison, so he and his parents and his sister, Natalie, have moved to the island from their home in San Francisco. With such a small group of people, including a small number of kids, living on the island Moose isn't sure about anything - making friends, playing ball. He and the warden's daughter, Piper, have to take the ferry in to school, and Piper has a grand plan involving the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who was in the prison in 1935.

I'm not sure why exactly - maybe it was the title, or the cover, or how I'd heard the book described - but I had the idea that this would be a much lighter, humorous book. Instead, what I found was a sometimes funny historical fiction about a boy and his family. Moose is the narrator, and how I saw the other characters, especially Piper and Natalie, was really colored by his interpretation. At the beginning, I thought Piper was a manipulative little chit, but either she grew as a character or on me, because I grew to like her despite her shenanigans. The historical research is clear in the strength of the story and setting, and the author's note bears this out - there is a note on Alcatraz that includes quotes from people who lived on the island (generally people who worked for the prison and their families), and a note on Natalie. Natalie's condition is never named in the story, though I read her as autistic, and the author's note bears that out. I found that her family's dynamics and challenges rang true, and I liked how clear it was that they all love her in their own way, even if they become frustrated at times.
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Having to move to a new town is never fun for a kid... but when your new home is Alcatraz Island, the high security prison that's home to the worst criminals in the country, that's a whole different ball game. It's 1935, and seventh-grader Moose Flanagan is happy that his dad is working when so many other people aren't... but he wishes that his dad could have gotten a job anywhere else. Not only does he have to live on the island with the prison, but there are very few other kids, and the only one his age is Piper, the scheming daughter of the warden. And, to make matters worse, Moose is expected to spend all of his free time taking care of his sister Natalie, who is severely autistic. Between Piper's schemes and Natalie's condition, how can Moose possibly be expected to have a normal childhood?

Review: I'm not sure where I got the idea that this book was funny - maybe from the title? - but boy, was I wrong on that one. I mean, yes, there were bits that made me laugh, but there were also bits that made me cry, and I was not expecting that at all. Even the back cover doesn't really give you a good sense for it; it only mentions Natalie in passing, with nary a mention of autism (which is never called by name in the story itself, since it wasn't defined as a diagnosis until 1943.) I went in expecting a book about the excitement and challenges of growing up on Alcatraz, and I got a book about the challenges of growing up with an autistic sister... that happened to take place on the famous prison. Don't get me wrong, it's a cool setting for the story, made cooler by the fact that a lot of the details about life on Alcatraz are factually accurate. But it's a lot more serious and moving of a story, and it dealt more weighty issues than it might have seemed at first blush. I particularly thought Moose was a well-done character, and his relationship with his sister felt incredibly real, which was a huge factor in making the story as touching as it ultimately was. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I'd recommend this to anyone mid-grade and up who likes historical fiction and/or coming of age novels... but I think it would be particularly relatable to readers with younger siblings.
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LibraryThing member dlow
I love this book! This was the story I selected for the Literacy Group reading, and I'm very glad I did. The content was easy to read, and easy to understand. I did get frustrated while reading the book, because of the way the parents treated the characters, but it was appropriate for the time and for the knowledge that was out there about Autism and what it was. I would love to share this book with my class and I am looking forward to reading the second book "Al Capone Shines My Shoes" I have a feeling I would need to preteach a lot about Al Capone, the 1930's, and Alcatraz, but if US history was a topic in my class this book would be a great read. It would also be appropriate to teach about Autism and peoples view on people that live with Autism. A great many ideas have changed and Moose's sister sounds like an amazing person. She sounds like so many of the students I have encountered. The rush to fix the little girl is a sign of the times, not the way things are headed now. I hope people are understanding that Autism can't be fixed, but it's rather a brain disorder that effects social and communication skills. The author uses the word disease at one point to describe Autism, and I almost flew into a fit of rage. The book did make me angry at times, and it would be necessary to make sure the group of students you are reading this with have coping skills, or are understanding of other's opinions and know that the book is designed to make you think.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Moose Flanagan is twelve when his family moves to Alcatraz Island, where his father will work both as an electrician and a prison guard. His excitement at being in close proximity with famous criminals like Al Capone is tempered by his increasing responsibility for his older sister, Natalie, who is developmentally delayed. Moose's parents are counting on Natalie's admission to the Esther P. Marinoff school with its track record of success with children like Natalie. However, things don't work out exactly as planned.

This story is nearly perfect. It has a great cast of children, including tiny, big-hearted Theresa, Moose's classmate and fellow baseball player, Scout, and the warden's obnoxious daughter Piper. Although middle grade readers are the target audience for the book, it will appeal to many adult readers. The only flaw for adult readers are the somewhat flat adult characters. They're not as bad as the adults in the Charlie Brown TV specials (wah Wah wah wah Wah wah), but they're not fully developed, either.
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LibraryThing member cammykitty
A lot of kids at school have been really into this book, and I'd heard that it was a really funny story about a kid growing up on Alcatraz where Al Capone does the laundry. Well, yes, it is that. It is also a very sensitive book about the troubles of a young adult whose sibling has Autism.

They didn't know what Autism was in 1935, which made Moose's life even more difficult. There was no place to turn. Nowadays,we don't know how to "cure" Autism, but we know what it is, what to expect and what strategies work. Back then, plenty of people claimed to have the answer but they were just experimenting and if something caused an improvement, happy happy.

Moose loves his sister very much, and goes through all the emotions a brother with a sister such as this would - responsibility, guilt, anger, resentment, embarrassment, protectiveness, love. Choldenko portrays all this believably and with great depth, all with no apology or call for pity. And on top of that, it's a great historical glimpse of Alcatraz, and funny too.
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LibraryThing member ellengryphon
This story captivated my nine-year-old son, who read it to complete an historical fiction book report. It's set during the Great Depression at the (now-closed) federal prison on Alcatraz Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The central character is a boy named Moose Flanagan, who moves rather unwillingly to Alcatraz with his family when his dad finds work there. There are a number of children, and soon Moose, and his sister, Natalie, are drawn into their circle. In the eye of this kid hurricane is Piper, the warden's daughter, who is nosy, bossy, scheming, manipulative and, ultimately (she makes you work for it, though), likable.

The Alcatraz kids quickly discern that Moose's sister Natalie is not right. She is treated as a very young girl by Moose's parents, but the kids sense that she is older. While his mom earns extra money teaching music, Moose is tasked with caring for Natalie, a responsibility that seems like a very heavy weight for one so young. Natalie is afflicted with what would now be diagnosed as autism. She is highly intelligent, loves numbers and routine, and is prone to violent outbursts. The Alcatraz kids are quick to pick up on her needs and, in their own compassionate way, share a bit of the responsibility of caring for her with Moose.

Tensions build around Piper's schemes, Moose's frustration about having to forgo boyhood staples such as after-school baseball to watch his sister, his quest for a souvenir "convict baseball" to present to his mainland school friend, Natalie's struggles and Moose's parents' efforts to get her the best counseling and schooling. All this is set against the fog, the bay, the gulls and their ubiquitous poop, and the cold yet somehow electric backdrop of a prison. A weighty moral dilemma is presented to Moose, who handles it adroitly and humanely. The results prompted a lively discussion between my son and I, not to mention much "googling" of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley and plans to visit Alcatraz and tour the old prison grounds.

The book leaves readers richly satisfied and grateful for the slice of life provided by Gennifer Choldenko, who dedicated the book to her own sister who is diagnosed with autism. For tapping a rich vein of California history, for its glimpse into the challenges of families with special-needs kids, for the quirky, original characters, Al Capone Does My Shirts is a great read for kids and grown-ups alike!
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
In 1935 Moose Flanagan, a likeable 12-year-old boy, moves with his family to Alcatraz Island. His father has taken a job as an electrician at the famous prison, and his mother hopes to enroll Moose's sister Natalie in a San Francisco school that specializes in helping children who would now be diagnosed as autistic. On the Island, Moose meets an interesting cast of characters, including the warden's daughter Piper and precocious seven-year-old Theresa. He deals with the problems of a normal 12-year-old boy, and he struggles to help his sister live a normal life.

This was a wonderful story. The layers fit together beautifully. Moose's girl troubles (mostly with Piper) and his love of baseball could have been a part of many stories about boys this age. But the added elements of having an autistic sister and living in the shadows of Alcatraz set this book apart. Choldenko creates a believable and extremely likeable character in Moose. His relationship with his sister Natalie is touching. His reactions to his parents ring true for a 12-year-old boy. And his frustrations with Piper had me laughing out loud.

I highly recommend this book. For those of you who like audio books, I thought this one was especially well done. The narrator was great, and the story definitely held my attention.
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LibraryThing member 4sarad
Moose has an altogether abnormal life. He has a sister who is a little different and his mom makes him tell everyone she is 10, though it’s obvious she’s a teenager. He also happens to live on Alcatraz with the worst criminals in America. Moose tries to make the best of his circumstances, making friends at school and getting into shenanigans on the island with the other kids who all want to meet Al Capone. It is a little hard to stay out of trouble on an island of convicts and scheming children, and things get a little messy!

This is both a very fun and yet educational and touching book. Moose has a very good relationship with his autistic sister Natalie, and yet it’s not perfect, which makes it seem very real. This book can help children understand autism while giving them a good story to keep them interested. Once you get past the shock that children lived on Alcatraz, you realize it must have been pretty fun!
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LibraryThing member MrJPenguin
Summary: This story tells the tale of Moose, just your average kid who has recently moved to the infamous island of Alcatraz, home to a good number of some of the undesirable criminals in existence. Life seems to be a struggle for Moose, not only because his father is a prison guard, but also because his sister Natalie has what is known only as autism. Faced with ridicule from a girl named Piper who also lives on Alcatraz, Moose finds himself some interesting adventures with his new life, one of which is writing a letter to a man with something powerful; connections. This man is none other than Al Capone.

Personal Reaction: This is defintely an enjoyable book. I find myself liking Moose due to having something in common with him; an austistic sibling. This book really is an interesting read to say the least.

Classroom Extension Ideas:

1. Have the students write a letter to any famous historical criminal other than Al Capone such as Bonny and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, or Jessie James.

2. Sit the children down and see if any of them have a disabled relative or know anyone who is disabled and how they feel about it.
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LibraryThing member KristieK
This book is about a boy and his family who live on Alcatraz Island. His father works at the prison as a guard. It is historically accurate with a humorous fictional story.

I love this book. It is funny and will draw you right in. I would use this book in the classroom. It would be a great way to teach the students about Alcatraz. It makes the topic fun and exciting.

1. I would have the students research the island on their own.
2. I would then have each student give a mini-report on their favorite part.
3. After the reports we would pretend to work on the island. Each student would have a job that was required on the island. They would have to be "in character" for the remainder of the day. (Example: a prison guard would be on lookout when we left the room to make sure that "inmates" were not escaping.)
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LibraryThing member pacifickle
This young adult novel is the story of 12-year-old Moose Flanagan. Moose's older sister is autistic, but since it's the 1930s, she isn't diagnosed. Moose's family moves to the San Francisco area to get his sister into a special school. Moose's father gets a job at the notorious prison Alcatraz, and the family moves onto the island that houses the prison. Moose and the other kids stationed on the island prison are fascinated by two things: baseball, and gangster Al Capone who is currently doing time there. This novel is a new perspective on Alcatraz, and gives insight into a dysfunctional family before dysfunction was defined, and the stress it puts on a family to grow up near the most famous maximum-security prison in the US.… (more)
LibraryThing member maggiereads
When you reflect on your childhood, do you remember your Mom reading to you before bedtime? Did a teacher share Little House on the Prairie or Charlotte’s Web with your entire class? Was there a funny story told every holiday about your dad or the wacky aunt? I bet there was.

It is within our human structure that we crave these interactions with others through stories. As infants, we first seek out the calming nature of our mother’s voice. Through oral stories, we learn morals and basic vocabulary. As we age, we continually build our vocabulary in order to communicate effectively. This is one reason to continue to read-aloud even after the age of eight.

Last year I did an informal study on what the kids were reading and enjoying at our library. The survey was purely qualitative and the sample skewed for I only asked kids that came into our building for one week. The results pointed to a certain teacher’s daily reading aloud of one book.

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis was the unanimous favorite among Como Elementary students. Each child I talked with remembered different plot lines and humorous situations, to the point of retelling them with great enthusiasm. Why? They felt special being read to and it showed.

The world is full of great read-alouds, the key is matching the person with the right book. For the book Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, I suggest a male reader. Main character and narrator, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan just calls out for a male voice.

This Newbery Honor book is set on the island of Alcatraz during the 1935 depression. The Flanagans hope to change their life for the better as Father works two shifts and Mother gives piano lessons. Moose meanwhile is missing baseball because he’s stuck baby-sitting his 16-year-old autistic sister.

Conflict is just around the corner, literally with Piper, the Warden’s daughter next door. Miss Piper has a knack for contriving moneymaking schemes that tend to go sour. Her latest project is convincing the whole class Al Capone will do their laundry for a nickel.

Word of caution; always read the book first. It is embarrassing when words pop up you don’t know, can’t pronounce or find inappropriate for the age group. It is best to buy the book so you can mark changes in the margin. What! A librarian just said mark up a book! Yeah, well not the library copy, please.
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LibraryThing member jcardwell04
A young man and his family move to Alcatraz to be closer to good schools for his sister; the young girl is in need of a special school. He quickly starts running around with the Director of the facility's daughter, who is trouble. She comes up with the idea of gathering clothes from their classmates and saying that Al Capone has done them, because of course the kids have connections with Alcatraz. It works and the kids, throughout the summer, find a lot out about themselves and eachother.… (more)
LibraryThing member craigwsmithtoo
Moose's family has just moved to Alcatraz Island, home of the infamous gangster, Al Capone. No, his father is not a prisoner. He is an electrician. While getting to know the other kids who live on the island, he meets the warden's daughter, who is full of mischief.

Moose has a sister who is autistic. Sometimes he takes care of her...actually it's quite often. Now he has to spend so much time looking after her that he can't do the things he wants or hang out with the other kids who play baseball on the island. It would all be better if his sister could be placed in a school that could help her, but she is turned down.

Where does Al Capone fit into this?
(Prisoners did do the laundry on Alcatraz.
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LibraryThing member Catnelson
In 1935, twelve-year-old Moose and his family move to Alcatraz Island, where his father has taken a job as an electrician for the prison in hopes of sending Moose's autistic sister, Natalie, to a special school in San Fransisco. However, Natalie is denied admittance to the school, and her care consumes much of their mother's time. Since his father is always working, Moose's unhappiness and loneliness grow, until he becomes friends with the warden's captivating daughter, Piper. Piper persuades moose to join her in a scheme to swindle their classmates: "Get your clothes laundered by Al Capone only 5 cents." Although Piper gets Moose is trouble, their friendship also helps Moose through his family difficulties. This humorous coming-of-age story will appeal to many… (more)
LibraryThing member jeriannthacker
Touching story about Moose and his family, who move to Alcatraz in the 1930's. Mosse's sister Natalie has autism and her worsening condition is a constant strain on the family. Sensitive story, well written. Newberry Honor book.
LibraryThing member phoenixcomet
An engaging reading of Al Capone Does My Shirts, showing both the frustrations of a 12 year old boy and the responsibility of same in relation to his dysfunctional family. The year is 1935 and his sister Natalie has mental issues (undiagnosed autism). Moose's mother is preoccupied with Natalie to the extent of being oblivious to Moose himself. But Moose is a good brother and brings Natalie around with his friends, and it does make a difference. The scenes depicting life on Alcatraz Island are based completely on fact.… (more)
LibraryThing member Janeece
This is a story of how a boy and his family move to Alcartrez island for his father to be a gaurd. He goies through multiple tribulations throughout the story especially with his sister who is autisic. He comes to find friends in a way that he never thought he would he begins to appreicate how mch they help his sister and finds out that even though the prisioners have done bad things they can help someone who is in need out.

I loved this book. It showed a lesson that i am always fighting for in my family. That even though at one time someones past may not be pretty they can change in an instant during the right circumstance.
As one of my classroom extensions we as a class are going to research the island and find out how theings were ran and just really dive into books about the island. For another one i am going to have my students write a short story on an adventure they would have if they lived on the island.
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LibraryThing member airdna
Historical fiction written in modern language. Moving to a new house and a new school is always stressful, but especially so when your new neighbors include some of the nation's most dangerous killers! The protagonist's dad has just taken a new job working for Alcatraz, and the whole family has to go with him, to live on the prison island, in a small community of prison workers' families.… (more)
LibraryThing member LeHack
The story is about Moose and his family who move to Alcatraz when his dad accepts a job as an electrician and guard at the prison. At the time, guards (and their families) were required to live on the island. Moose's older sister is autistic. About life on Alcatraz, Moose's friends and activities and about how his sister's autism affects the whole family. Wonderful book.… (more)
LibraryThing member miss_scarlet
Good children's book. The plot is sweet and referances to Capone are humorous. However, not a completely comedic novel, it is more about the maturing of a young boy through the experiences of taking care of his sick sister.
LibraryThing member eduscapes
Written from the point of view of a young boy living on Alcatraz Island during the time of Al Capone, this Newbery honor book also provides insights into friendship, family, and autism in the 1930s.


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