As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)
The central conceit of Gennifer Choldenko’s “Tale From Alcatraz” series, is that a group of youngsters who live on the island prison must navigate a dangerous neighborhood. Naturally, when surrounded by crooks and criminals there is a mystery cropping up on an almost daily basis. Who better to solve those crimes than the plucky group of youngsters?
Choldenko’s been successful with this structure before, her first novel–Al Capone Does My Shirts–won the Newberry in 2004. She goes above and beyond the boilerplate “kid detective” story line by having her protagonist (the thoroughly 30’s named, Moose Flanagan) also spend much of his time protecting his developmentally challenged older sister. Set at a time when children were supposed to be seen, not heard, and when mental challenges were something close to unspeakable, Chodlenko makes sure that the historical nature of her novel enriches the story as much as possible.
That said, there’s still a large degree of “mystery-by-the-numbers” plotting at play here. Awkward teenage love triangles, and sudden startling revelations feel like beats that must be hit rather than genuine slice-of-life moments. A small drama around Moose’s father near the end of the book gets the heart racing a little faster. But by and large Al Capone Does My Homework is an agreeable, if not riveting, youthful mystery.