Gennifer Choldenko admits that as a student, she didn’t particularly enjoy history. That’s a bit surprising to hear from an author who received a Newbery Honor for her first historical novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004).
Writing historical fiction is certainly the California author’s forte, as evidenced in the final entry in her acclaimed Alcatraz trilogy, Al Capone Does My Homework.
This convincing middle grade novel follows the stories of Moose Flanagan and his friends, the children of prison employees on Alcatraz in the 1930s. Living on the island has its challenges, but Moose and the gang always get involved in adventures or mysteries of some kind. In this new installment, Moose’s father has been named associate warden, a position that could expose him to danger. When a fire breaks out at the family’s apartment, many residents suspect that Moose’s autistic sister, Natalie, caused the blaze. But Moose is determined to find out the truth.
MAKING IT REAL
Creating believable characters like Moose and Natalie, as well as a historically correct setting, are incredibly important to Choldenko, who not only consulted primary sources but also volunteered on Alcatraz to advance her research.
“I am recreating an actual time that existed,” she says. “I need to stick to the facts that are appropriate for that time.” Her research into Alcatraz and the era inspires much of her story. “I find the research process really generates so many ideas. I get so excited . . . finding out these little tidbits. It really makes the book feel more real.”
Getting into the minds of her tween characters is not always easy, but, Choldenko says, “I really like being a 12-year-old boy.”
Approaching the characterization of the notorious gangster Al Capone was another challenge. “Al was hard because he actually existed; I had to read a lot and find out where he was coming from,” she says. “It took a while to get his voice believable to me. You keep working on it until it starts to come together.”
At one point in Al Capone Does My Homework, Moose gets a cryptic clue from Capone, but doesn’t know what to make of it. The note on Moose’s homework later figures prominently into the plot. But would the hardened criminal really have offered help to a kid like Moose?
“He did have a small nice side,” Choldenko says. “He had a terrible temper, but if he liked you, he would have done anything for you. . . . [Of course] he would expect something in return.”
In conducting her research on Capone, Choldenko learned that he opened the first soup kitchen in Chicago, one indication of his softer side. “The reality is so much more interesting than anything you can make up. I never tire of doing the research,” she says.
While not everything goes smoothly for Moose and his family, Choldenko’s book is a successful combination of thorough research (including a counterfeiting scheme that one character inadvertently gets involved in), convincing characters (especially the well-drawn Natalie and Moose) and kid-enticing elements (including pixies, baseball and eavesdropping on criminals).
CONNECTING WITH READERS
Choldenko loves hearing from her readers, and she often does. In fact, the title of the new book was inspired by a student suggestion from New Jersey (the original title of the book was Al Capone Is My Librarian, but homework ended up fitting the plot well). Perhaps she appreciates such suggestions more than the letter she got from one fan who said, “I was going to write to Roald Dahl, but he was dead, so I wrote to you instead.”
“I love connecting to kids,” she says. “Unlike adults, they will tell you exactly what they think.”
Choldenko is completing research on her next historical novel—with a bit of science thrown in—due out in 2015 from Random House/Penguin. “It is really challenging me,” she says. All the legwork and the writing, though, have proven rewarding. “I just feel blessed. I really love working on these books.”
Al Capone Does My Homework is a fine conclusion to this popular series, which already has more than one million copies in print. Could a movie be next? Choldenko says the first book has been made into a play, and the books have been optioned for films, but nothing is in the works yet, despite requests for a movie from many young readers.
Children—especially boys—remain eager to read more about mobsters, murderers and Alcatraz, and teachers use her books as clever ways to interest kids in history. And while Choldenko realizes the historical aspect is important, she says, “My goal is always to entertain kids first.”