Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Two Books by Gennifer Choldenko
Al Capone Shines My Shoes (Dial, 2009)
In this sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko takes the protagonist, Moose Flannagan, into closer contact with Alcatraz’s most infamous prisoner, Al Capone. Although this is a work of fiction, the book is based on research about the prison and interviews with adults who lived on the island as children. The relationships of the children among themselves, their interactions with the prisoners, as well as details about the island, make this great historical fiction for young readers.
12-year-old Moose faces a dilemma. He is indebted to Capone, who pulled strings to help get Moose’s autistic sister, Natalie, into a special school in San Francisco. In exchange, Capone expects Moose to return the favor. After Moose discovers a bar spreader hidden in Natalie’s suitcase when she comes home for a visit, Moose realizes that someone on Alcatraz is planning an escape. His fears abound and allegiances are tested. The manner in which the island children work together to foil the escape brings together many disparate parts of the story including idiosyncrasies of autism, pet flies, a bullhorn, and Mae Capone’s handkerchief.
Themes of loyalty to friends, the complicated relationships between the prisoners and the guards, and isolation and imprisonment, permeate the book and make this a captivating, educational read for boys in girls from 4-8th grade. Choldenko is working on her third book in this trilogy; I look forward to reading it.
If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period (Harcourt, 2007)
To be honest, this book started slow. I kept listening because I admire Choldenko’s writing and I figured that this had to be more than just a story about a suburban white girl (Kirsten) who overeats because her parents are having problems, and a black boy (Walker) with a single mother who is trying to adjust to his new, mostly-white private school.
My hunch was right. Since every chapter alternates POV, the reader gets to see inside each 12-year-old’s mind as they meet and interact. This proves to be funny and enlightening and makes the book accessible to both girls and boys.
The story increases steam when Kirsten overhears a fight between her parents. She discovers a startling connection between her and Walk which is the source of her mother’s anger and depression. When Kirsten’s younger sister inadvertently informs him of their connection, Walker is shocked and angry. Kirsten is instrumental in calming him down, and in the process, discovers a new character trait about herself.The story ends with both protagonists accepting who they are. As Kirsten states at the end, “It matters who I am. I fit in the world.” This statement equally applies to both characters.
As in inveterate tree-lover and writer, I loved how Choldenko wove trees into the story. If I were a middle-school teacher I would elicit my students’ reactions to this symbol. Since my work-in-progress also has a multi-racial theme, I appreciate how Choldenko challenges young readers to think about racial prejudices and preconceived ideas about racial identity.