La Isla de los Alcatraces translated as The Island of the Pelicans, The Rock, Alcatraz….San Francisco residents can look across the bay and see this landmark at any time of day; as long as the fog isn’t too thick. Most people know Alcatraz as a now defunct federal prison, but it has a history that started long before it locked up hardened criminals like Robert Stroud and Al Capone.
In 1775, Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco Bay and named the island. It was taken over by the federal government when California was acquired from Mexico in 1848. During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used as a prison for Confederate sympathizers and privateers captured on the west coast. When the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed much of San Francisco, prisoners were transferred to this location. The Rock officially became a federal prison in 1934. It remained a prison for 29 years.
During the time the island was used as a federal prison, there was a large population of non-criminals living on the island as well. The warden, prison guards, electricians, and others involved in maintenance all lived on the island with their families. There was even a school for the children of Alcatraz employees. It is during this time that the stories, Al Capone Does My Shirts, and the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, take place.
Gennifer Choldenko, author of these books, introduces the reader to Moose Flanagan and his family in Al Capone Does My Shirts. Moose’s father is an electrician and the family has just moved to Alcatraz Island so his father can work for the prison. Besides Moose and his parents, the family includes Moose’s older sister, Natalie. Moose spends much of his time looking after Natalie who has autism. His parents want desperately for Natalie to be able to attend a special school in San Francisco, but when Natalie is denied, Moose takes matters into his own hands.
With the help of the warden’s daughter, Piper, Moose is able to send a communication secretly to Al Capone asking for his help in securing Natalie’s place at the school. Moose isn’t quite sure if his message made it to Capone until he finds a note in the sleeve of his shirt that says “Done” written in Al Capone’s handwriting.
In the sequel to this book, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Mr. Flanagan is now working as a prison guard in the Alcatraz prison. When Moose finds another note in the sleeve of his shirt, this one reading, “Your turn,” he wonders what he could possibly do for Al Capone. His friend Piper, the warden’s daughter, also gets involved and through a series of antics, Moose is able to respond to Capone’s request.
Both books have won numerous awards including the Northern California Book Award, San Francisco Chronicle Top Ten Children’s Books of 2004, ALA Notable Book, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2009, and NCIBA Best Middle Grade Book of the Year 2010.
Alcatraz is now owned and maintained by the National Park Service. It is open to the public for tours at various hours depending on the season. You can order tickets by visiting Alcatraz Cruises.