Sunday, February 8, 2009

Al Capone Does My Shirts

"I want to be here like I want poison oak on my private parts."

How could you not want to keep reading after a line like that?

Friday, January 4, 1935
Today I moved to a twelve acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water. Alcatraz sits smack in the middle of the bay--so close to the city of San Francisco, I can hear them call the score on the baseball game on Marina Green. Okay, not that close. But still.

Before beginning this book, not one of my 20 fourth graders had even heard of Alcatraz Island (Alca-what?? Is that a video game?) and thought Al Capone was the short Italian dude who delivered pizza from Dino's. However, not ten pages into this book the questions began rolling:

How many people did you have to kill to be sent to Alcatraz? How many people did Al Capone kill? Did anyone ever escape from Alcatraz? Where's San Francisco anyway--is that near the Everglades? Don't be so daft. They can't have an island in the Everglades. I think it's near my Gram's condo in Ft. Myers. Did the convicts really do the laundry? Can we take a field trip there? PLEASE, MRS. SCHREIBER????

Obsession is the word. We couldn't get enough of it. Set in 1935 amidst the Great Depression, Prohibition, and baseball fever is a historical fiction novel so well written that it very well could be true. (We in room 463 like to think that it is.) Moose Flanagan's family has just moved to the island of Alcatraz, leaving behind his friends, his neighborhood, and his favorite pastime: baseball. You can guess that he's not overjoyed at the prospect of finding a new home on a rocky island inhabited by the most notorious criminals in the nation. (Notorious means to be famous for doing something bad).

Moose's father works as an electrician and prison guard and his mother teaches piano lessons. While his parents are working, Moose is responsible for taking care of his sister, Natalie, who is autistic (although it wasn't known as autism back in those days). It doesn't take long for Moose to join the small group of children who also live on the island, namely the Warden's daughter Piper, a feisty beauty with trouble on the brain. Piper uses her elitist influence to persuade the other kids to join in her schemes; the most memorable of which was charging the school children money to have their clothes laundered by Al Capone. Although the plan backfires in the worst way, it doesn't stop Piper from her continuous plotting to get up close and personal with the convicts (or "cons" as they are called by the islanders). Readers will get caught up in Moose's personal struggle between doing the right thing and doing what his heart desires. The ending will leave you wishing for a time machine to jump back into the 30's and experience life as it was more than 70 years ago. (We are working on making that happen, but don't hold your breath.)

*If you ask any of my students what their #1 favorite line in the entire book was their answer will undoubtedly be the same. Moose, fed up with Piper's antics, tells her to "go stick her head in the crapper." Warning to all teachers of fourth graders: Fits of giggles, high-pitched squeals of the word "crapper," and all-around hysteria ensue after muttering that one phrase. Just a heads-up.

Recipe to Read By: Natalie's Lemon Cake
According to Moose, this recipe works wonders for bribing your sister to do what you want.
Glad my brother never knew about this--I would do ANYTHING for a moist slice of this too-tart- yet-supersweet lemony goodness.

1 pkg. lemon Jello
4 eggs
3/4 c. water
1 pkg. yellow cake mix (or lemon-flavored if you really want a citrusy sensation)
3/4 c. oil
2 lemons
2 c. confectioners' sugar
1 well greased 9x13" cake pan

Mix first 3 ingredients and beat 2 minutes.
Add next 2 ingredients and beat another minute.
Pour into greased cake pan.
Put into preheated oven (325 degrees if glass pan, 350 degrees if metal pan.)
Allow 40-45 minutes to rise and brown; should spring back when poked with your finger.
Mix juice from 2 lemons with confectioners' sugar, pouring slowly to avoid lumps.
Prick cake while hot all over with fork (this is the best part!), then pour lemon-sugar mix all over warm cake.
Call your sister in your most syrupy sweet voice and be prepared to get whatever you want from her.

*Recipe courtesy of

This book has won the following prestigious awards:
Newbery Honor Book
ALA Notable Book
Parent’s Choice Silver Medal
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

If your love of the book grows into a boundless obsession (trust us--we've been there), here are some websites to satisfy your thirst for anything Alcatraz:
The History of Alcatraz:
Al Capone History Files:
Alcatraz Escape Attempts:

1 comment:

  1. Hi from Barcelona, Spain!

    and very interesting to find your blog!!

    It sounds good and tasty!

    ;) i´ll follow your writing! i invite you to have a look at mine and share ideas!! ;)