Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE by Gennifer Choldenko

First Paragraph(s): Even when you live on a prison island with crafty criminals plotting ways to knock you off, summer is the best time of the year.
No tests. No homework. No getting up early to catch the ferry. No teachers who think you flunked a few grades because you happen to be kind of big for thirteen and a half.
Summer is freedom. Not for the prisoners, of course. But for us kids who live on Alcatraz Island. 

Gennifer Choldenko will be here  Wednesday to face The 7 Questions, so mark it on your calendar and find your way back here. Today, we're going to discuss her newest middle grade novel; why I loved it and you will too.

I know I'm always picking a new favorite opening, Esteemed Reader, but the opening of Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is definitely near the top of Middle Grade Ninja's List of Fantastic Openings Made of Win Because They're Everything You Want in a Book's Opening, or MGNLFOMWBTEYWBO for short.

Let's break it down. First, Choldenko hooks us with the setting. To be fair, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is the fourth book in a beloved series, so presumably many readers will already be familiar with the setting. Choldenko is reminding them of the dangers of Alcatraz and enticing first time readers, of which there will always be some who obstinately skip the first three books (***waves***). Second, she expertly sets the story's tone  by simultaneously re-establishing our main character since this is a first-person narrative. She tells us what summer means for Moose, and shows he's a bit cheeky with that swipe at the prisoners who won't be having a summer of freedom.

Two other things that win my heart right away are, one, every chapter is dated so there's never any question about when we are; it's Tuesday, May 26, 1936. If I had my way, every historical work would do this. Two, she finds a way right up front in the second paragraph to tell us our protagonist is thirteen and a half. 

Game, set, and match. All the essential exposition we need to know up front is seamlessly conveyed with a juicy hook set both in tone and in setting. If you're a returning reader, welcome back. Make yourself comfortable, newcomers, you're in the hands of a storyteller who knows what's she's doing. 

Obviously, there's more exposition needed. But exposition for exposition's sake is boring, especially since lots of readers already know this stuff. Observe how Choldenko slows down just enough to catch up the newbies and remind folks who've slept since the last book what the situation of our heroes is:

"Uh-oh! Uh-oh" My older sister, Natalie, mutters like a character on a kids' radio program. Her blond-brown head is bent forward as she counts toothpicks in a row. She's tall, like my mom and me, but she holds herself in a way that makes her look younger and smaller than she is.
My father's hand hovers over Natalie's toothpicks. "Okay if I take one?"
Natalie hands him the last one in line.
We moved up here from Santa Monica a year and a half ago so Nat could go to a school called the Esther P. Marinoff, which helps kids whose brains aren't wired like everyone else's. My parents sacrificed a lot for her to go to that school. We all did.
My father was an electrician in Santa Monica, but he had a hard time finding a job up here. It's almost impossible to get work right now on account of the Depression. I don't understand exactly what the Depression is except it has to do with the banks collapsing and people not having money. Anyhow, the only job my father could get was as a guard and an electrician in the prison. Everybody likes him here, though, so he got promoted to assistant wardn.
Since Nat's been at the Esther P. Marinoff, she's learned how to have a conversation--not just echo what you say. She still has a hard time looking people in the eye, but she has been trying really hard. Now we're helping her make friends.

Choldenko's not just giving us a quick recap, but establishing one of the major conflicts of the novel. There's a bunch of stuff about baseball, one baseball in particular signed by Babe Ruth and another historical figure I won't spoil except to say that his name is in the title:) And all of that is just fine and young readers in particular will enjoy those aspects of the story. But at its heart, this is a story about the family of an autistic child.

Seems like there's been a recurring theme of autism in the books we've been discussing this year, doesn't it, Esteemed Reader? That's not an accident.

But the word 'autism' is never once mentioned in this book until the author's note because this story takes place eight years before autism was first diagnosed. Part of the tragedy of this tale is that our characters don't understand what's happening with Natalie or why she never snaps out of it. There aren't any resources to assist them or even educate them as to what they can expect or how they can help.

If this detail doesn't break your heart, Esteemed Reader, I suspect there's nothing in your chest to be broken:

Things have always been screwy around Natalie's birthday. Every year Mom pretends Natalie is turning ten again, instead of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or, this year, seventeen. Mom wants Nat to be younger so she has more time to catch up with the other kids.

Choldenko doesn't shy away from showing the frustration both for Natalie and her family:

"No little girl dress. No." She spins faster.
My mother marches to Nat's closet and picks the pink dress off the hanger. She unbuttons it, walks back to the kitchen, and shoves it in Natalie's spinning face. "Take that dress off, now. It makes you look--"
Natalie hugs herself.
"Natalie, now!" my mother shouts. It's awful when my mother loses control. Then it seems like there are two Natalies.
"No now! No now!" Natalie knocks a vase off the shelf. It falls with a thud. A glass bowl crashes, splintering into pieces. She bangs her head against the wall, bites at her wrists, kicks the books off the shelf, and then collapses in a heap in the middle of the broken shards.

My mother is shaking hard. She stands next to Natalie, unable to move.

Natalie isn't just the autistic girl. She's a character as fully flushed out as the non-autistic ones. She has things she wants and needs. She knows how old she is and she wants to grow up and she wouldn't mind being kissed.

But this isn't her series. Our character is Moose, our narrator through three previous books. And being Natalie's brother isn't always easy:

When I get back to my apartment, my mother and Natalie are already gone. Under the saltshaker I find a note.
Moose, four more days to go! Love, Mom
I can't help smiling at this. I didn't realize she knew I was counting the last days of school. I like when my mom acts like my mom. Sometimes it seems like all she thinks about is Natalie.

This book is dedicated "to every kid who has a sibling with autism," a position that brings plenty of difficulty as Choldenko knows only too well. She reveals in the author's note that her own sister was autistic and so she brings to these books that, again, are also about Al Capone and Alcatraz, a lifetime's worth of research born of experience. And it shows.

There is no element of the story we experience outside of Moose's perspective and it's his frustration we feel most keenly. Moose wants to play baseball with the high school team, even if he's got to sneak them items to prove he's an acquaintance of Al Capone (it's a whole thing that a 'review' less focused on the treatment of autism would probably spend more time on). Although, I did get a chuckle at how difficult a prospect it would be for Moose to get a selfie with Al Capone in 1936, even if Alcatraz prison weren't a factor.

When Moose is forced to take Natalie with him as he auditions for the baseball team, she's legitimately inappropriate, particularly for the more chaste era she's living in. Because autism isn't a known thing, the other kids don't understand. Moose doesn't entirely understand and you can feel his pain and frustration:

"Who's she kissing?" Beck asks.
"Got to be Passerini," Dewey snorts. "All the girls love him."
The guys laugh.
My cheeks turn burning hot. I jump up and dash to the bleachers. "Natalie, stop doing that!" I growl.
"Passerini! Passerini!" Beck calls.
"Go on, Pass... kiss her," Dewey hoots.
"He, Pass. She wants you, Pass!" Dewey, Beck, and Scout are all laughing.
"Stop it, Natalie!" I hiss.
She stops smacking, but her lips are puckered like they;'re frozen there. Her arms cover her ears blocking me out.
I grab her arm. I know she hates this, but I can't stop myself. "Don't do that with your lips!" My breath is hot in her face.
Natalie wraps her arms more tightly around her head, covering her face with her elbows. She doubles over, rolls up into the footrest of the bleachers.
"They're making fun of you. Don't you see?"
But the more I talk, the tighter Natalie pulls inside herself.
I glance back at the guys. They aren't laughing anymore. They're staring. Even Scout.
"Get out of here!" I shout, rushing at them.

There also a lot of touching moments in this story, which I'm not going to share because I don't want to spoil them. And there's a somewhat villainous woman who takes particular interest in Natalie for her own nefarious purposes. Bea gives Natalie some grown up dresses and a more mature haircut, helping her escape her mother's intentions of keeping her forever ten, which is good. Unfortunately, Bea also places Natalie in harm's way.

Although Choldenko doesn't go out of her way to show us the full brutality of the time period, she doesn't shy away from it either (without every straying too far from Middle Grade country). Being dishonest about the realities of 1936 would be cheat. We're told of grown men so hungry they lick the street where children's ice cream has been spilled. And I shook my head in disbelief at how an incident involving children and a gun was resolved.

There's plenty of sexism to go around, both avert and less so, and not softened just because the reader presumably has more progressive thoughts than the characters (always assuming the reader isn't named 'Pence'). Even our likable protagonist says some things that wouldn't fly today, such as "It's prison, not a women's club." No doubt, readers will bristle at some of the realities of the time, but Choldenko isn't writing about a fantastical past or an alternate history. That baseball signed by the Babe and Capone was real and so were outdated social norms, unfortunately.

And that's where we'll leave it. Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is a very entertaining read that made me wipe my eyes several times before it was done and laugh out loud as well. 

Before we'll call it a review, I want to share one more of Choldnko's pro tips for writers. Here's a memorable way to describe a character's appearance in a first-person narrative without looking in a mirror:

As soon as my feet hit the wooden planks, the dock officer, a man they call the Nose, comes over. The Nose got his name because he smelled convicts' moonshine hidden in a fire extinguisher.
He's the same size I am--almost six feet--with the same brownish-blondish hair and brown eyes. Everybody says I look like him.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Al Capone Throws Me a Curve:

My stomach is mixed up, like it can't decide if I ate too much or I'm hungry.

My head nods like a traitor.

I don't see how Alcatraz is going to get us on the high school team. But if anyone can wangle a way on, it's Scout. He can charm a tree stump. He can befriend a highway divider. He can convince a pen to become a pencil for the day.

I've just turned away when I hear her voice, thin as chicken broth.

Worst inning I've ever seen.
Back in the field, Dewey fumbles a pop fly. Passerini walks two players. Beck trips and falls on his face. He spits out a mouthful of dirt.
They're way better than this. Sometimes slumps are like a bad case of chicken pox. The pain has to run its course. You can't just snap your fingers and have it go away.

Piper laughs in my face. I've never known anyone to enjoy my pain as much as she does.

I keep waving until the ferry is small enough to fit in my pocket. And then I let her go.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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