Children's Corner: Al Capone series author will always be captivated by Alcatraz

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Spending time on Alcatraz Island was one of the best things that ever happened to Gennifer Choldenko.

No, Ms. Choldenko wasn't an inmate in the infamous prison housed on the "Rock" in San Francisco Bay. Instead, she was a children's author in search of inspiration for her next novel, and she found plenty of it while working as a docent at Alcatraz in the early 2000s.

The result of Ms. Choldenko's time at Alcatraz was a historical novel titled "Al Capone Does My Shirts." The book is narrated by 12-year-old Moose Flanagan, the son of an Alcatraz guard. Because his family is required to live on the island, Moose finds himself having some interesting connections with Capone, one of the most notorious criminals of the time who served five years in prison there.

Yet dealing with Capone is only one of the challenges facing Moose, whose older sister, Natalie, has what would now be diagnosed as autism. Moose is one of the few people who can handle Natalie, but that gets harder as she gets older, leading some of the other Alcatraz families to believe Natalie should be institutionalized.

Ms. Choldenko's skill in blending such disparate elements as Al Capone and autism into a page-turning story won her novel a 2005 Newbery Honor and millions of young fans. Winning the Newbery Honor also jump-started her nascent career as a children's author. (The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the best written children's book; several Newbery Honor, or runner-up, books also usually are named.)

Since then, Ms. Choldenko, 56, has published several other novels, including "Al Capone Shines My Shoes," which details Moose's further travails and triumphs on Alcatraz, including trying to carefully handle the attentions of Piper, the wily fickle daughter of the Alcatraz warden.

Set for release today is the final book in the Alcatraz trilogy, "Al Capone Does My Homework" (Dial, $17.99, ages 10-14). In this book, Moose faces some of his biggest challenges yet as he searches for who might have set his family's Alcatraz apartment on fire while worrying that the prison employees are targeting his father, newly promoted to associate warden.

It's a bittersweet time for Ms. Choldenko, who acknowledges that she will miss immersing herself in the world of Moose, Natalie and the other children who live on Alcatraz.

"I'm sad I won't get to be Moose anymore," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. "But I also don't feel that it's exactly the end. I'm still part of the Alcatraz community," which gathers each year for an alumni day that Ms. Choldenko also attends.

In addition, she said that she so enjoyed seeing the world from Moose's eyes that "I probably will do some other books from the point of view of boys that age. ... It surprised me how much I like thinking that way."

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., Ms. Choldenko was the youngest of four siblings. Her sister Gina had autism, so Ms. Choldenko understands what it's like to live with an autistic sibling and wanted to make that part of the "Al Capone" books.

"Now there are a number of middle-grade and young-adult books that have kids who have autism ... but when I was a kid, there was nothing. So I think I was responding to that. ... I wanted to write the kind of book that I wish I could have read as a kid."

She earned a bachelor's degree in English at Brandeis University and spent more than a decade working as an advertising writer. She eventually became dispirited with the idea of "using my creative energy to sell someone a second mortgage" and enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, earning a bachelor's degree in illustration.

"It was clear to me that it was more important to be a failure at something I loved than a success at something I hated," she said.

In 1997, she published her first book, a picture book titled "Moonstruck." Interestingly, the publisher wanted someone else to do the artwork, despite Ms. Choldenko's newly minted degree in illustration.

Since then, she has written and published three other picture books -- all illustrated by someone else. She also has published two other novels in addition to the three "Al Capone" books.

Ms. Choldenko says her father was the biggest influence in her decision to become a writer.

"It took me a long time to go after my dream of being a writer," she said. While her father was a highly successful businessman, he never succeeded in his heartfelt goal of becoming a published writer, she noted.

"So I learned two things from him. One was that writing was a blast, and two, that it would break my heart."

Asked why she is now focused on writing children's books instead of illustrating them, Ms. Choldenko said: "Once you decide that you're a creative person, you then have to figure out where you fit in that world.

"I found that I could spend all day on a manuscript and be as happy as could be, but that, when I spent all day illustrating, I felt lonely."

After "Al Capone Does My Homework," Ms. Choldenko's next publication will be a picture book, "Putting the Monkeys to Bed." She is also working on another novel, "also historical fiction, but not set on Alcatraz and it takes place in a different time frame."

Overall, Ms. Choldenko considers herself hugely fortunate to write children's books for a living, especially novels in which she gets to see the world through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy.

As she says on her website, www. "I've been a 12-year-old for 20 years now. I have no plans to turn 13."


Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at


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