Al Capone Does My Shirts: A Tale from Alcatraz by Gennifer Choldenko is an award winning novel set during the Great Depression in 1935. It's about 12-year-old Moose Flanagan and his sister Natalie, who has autism. When their father gets a job as an electrician on Alcatraz, the family moves there and the siblings have to adjust to living on an island that houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the world!
Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan is not thrilled about moving next door to a maximum security prison occupied by the most notorious criminals in America. He misses his old home and his friends. However, Moose knows that his father was lucky to get a job as an electrician there as the year is 1935 and during the Great Depression, a quarter of the population was unemployed.
Moose has always been close with his older sister Natalie, who has autism. He is fiercely loyal to Natalie and understands the challenges caused by her autism. Moose is often the only one who can comfort Natalie when she is overwhelmed and knows effective strategies to calm her down and help her feel safe. Natalie's autism affects how she experiences the world. She prefers predictability and loves activities such as counting, memorizing facts, and playing with her button collection. She is extremely intelligent and can do extraordinary calculations in her head at the drop of a hat. But, her autism causes her to have difficulty communicating with others and navigating the world. Natalie's mother is desperate to get her into the nearby Esther P. Marinoff School, which is well known as an excellent school for students with autism. However, in order to get in, Natalie needs to improve some of her behaviors and communication skills.
To help Natalie, Mrs. Flanagan hires a tutor while Moose is in school. Then, while she is at work, she has Moose watch Natalie after school and bring her everywhere he goes. This frustrates Moose as he is still trying to make friends and wishes he could play his favorite sport, baseball, after school to get to know his classmates. Despite his reluctance, Moose has a strong sense of duty towards Natalie and does what he's told.
Other kids live on Alcatraz as well. One such resident is the warden's daughter, Piper. Moose describes her as looking like a movie star. She plays the innocent act with her father but, secretly, Piper has a penchant for breaking the rules. While Moose and Piper are at their school in San Francisco, Piper exaggerates their interactions with the prisoners to impress their classmates. Piper even concocts a scheme to make a profit by telling their classmates that they can have their clothes washed by Al Capone for a price! To his dismay, Moose can't help but become entangled in Piper's wild intrigues.
In an effort to befriend Scout, a boy at school, Moose looks for a real "convict baseball" to give him. The prisoners in Alcatraz are known for loving baseball and playing when they are allowed. Moose searches the area surrounding the prison daily looking for a lost ball but he can't find one. Because of his searching, Moose leaves Natalie sitting alone outside for about an hour each day. One afternoon to his surprise, Moose discovers that Natalie has been spending these times alone with a convict! The convict knows him by name and gives him a baseball saying, "I know you've been looking for one." Moose is beside himself! He can't believe he left Natalie alone to possibly be harmed by one of the prisoners!
Fortunately, Moose's worries wind up being unfounded. Piper uncovers the details of Prisoner 105, a.k.a. The Onion, because of his love of gardening, and they are relieved to find that he was just as nice as he seemed and almost out on parole, which is why he is able to roam the grounds. Regardless, Moose is riddled with guilt and determined not to fail Natalie again.
Moose and his family have seen great improvement in Natalie and are so hopeful she will pass her interview to get into the Esther P. Marinoff School. One day, Moose discovers that the school has an age requirement that students be younger than 12 and he knows that Natalie is three years older than him and about to turn 16. Mrs. Flanagan has been hiding her age for years, finding it easier to believe that Natalie is actually younger than Moose. The family has been celebrating Natalie's 10th birthday for six years in a row. After her birthday party, Moose can't take the lies anymore. He stands up to his parents and tells them they have to be honest, believing that being dishonest about Natalie's age won't help her in the long run.
Natalie fails the interview to get into Esther P. Marinoff and the family's hopes are dashed. Moose decides he can't sit idly by and must do whatever he can. He is determined to help Natalie even if it means breaking the law. With Piper's help, Moose illegally sneaks a letter to Al Capone imploring him to use his connections to help Natalie get into the school. Soon after he sends the letter, Natalie is miraculously accepted! The family is overjoyed believing she will finally get the help that she desperately needs. As the story ends, Moose finds a note hidden in one of his clean shirts from the laundry that simply says, "Done."