We are often told to give a book a good solid chance before giving up on it. Aside from not judging it by it’s cover, we need to give the author some time to fully develop the plot. The last 2 books that I read are prime examples of this conundrum. As an adult, I can convince myself to keep on going, especially if the book has gotten accolades an awards, but what about the intended audience? The two books were Al Capone Does My Shirts and Show Me a Sign.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko is the assigned reading book for my rising 5th grader. Among other accolades, it was a Newberry Honor book. Set on Alcatraz island in 1935, it is an interesting look at life in a different time, at friendship, and at the treatment of kids with autism in that time period. It isn’t, as you might think from the title, a funny book. The story is narrated by Moose, a 12 year old kid who has just moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work 2 jobs and they can afford to send their daughter Natalie to a special school. His dad is now never around and his mother has left the bulk of the responsibility of taking care of his sister on his shoulders. Their mother says that Natalie is 10, but really she is probably 16. Moose is trying to navigate living on the island and meeting the other kid residents, including Piper, the warden’s daughter who is manipulative and bossy. Moose is incredibly protective of his sister and wants to just get off to a good start and lay low. The reality of this story is that it is more about the treatment of autism in the 1930s than it is about Al Capone or Alcatraz. Both feature in the story in their own ways, but Natalie and how she fits into the family dynamic is the focus. Moose spends the most time with Natalie and understands her in ways that others don’t. She also trusts Moose more than she trusts anyone else and he would do anything in his power to help her. Life in the 30s with autism was nothing like it is today. It is a great story, but you have to have the patience to let the story find its feet and to be open to a story about family dynamics rather than life on Alcatraz. I will be interested to see how this gets used in the fall.
The second book was one that E randomly picked from a Scholastic catalog that I said okay to – Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte. My interest in the book came because it is a Schneider Family award winner. The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. I have been amazed by many of the books that have won this honor, so I definitely wanted to check this one out. The concept of the story was fascinating, that in the early 1900s there was an area of Martha’s Vineyard that was inhabited by an extraordinarily large deaf community. So much so that they actually had their own form of sign language (MVSL). The main character is Mary, a young deaf girl who has never felt in any way as an “other” in her home until a young scientist comes to the island to discover the origin of their deafness. The book was somewhat ho-hum until Andrew comes to the island, but from that point on, I completely understood why this won the award. Andrew looks down on those who are deaf and eventually takes Mary as a “live specimen” to study. LeZotte explores how those outside of the deaf community often look down on them as not as intelligent, when there is absolutely no reason to ever think that. In addition to considering the life of the deaf, LeZotte also looks at how Native Americans were treated as well as the black freedmen that also lived on the island. In a similar way that the deaf were mistreated in the larger cities, they did not all treat the marginalized communities on their own island very well. This was an exceptionally powerful book and well written, it just begins a little slowly and is set in 1904 where life in general was simply different.
There is a reason that I am not an English teacher and that I don’t have to assign reading. I want people to find the books that speak to them, even if that means that I have to read through a lot of books to help point people in the right direction. I wish that I could be a fly on the wall when E’s class actually discusses Al Capone. I hope that the kids stick with it. E’s one friend who had started it was not impressed and felt like she didn’t know what a lot of the words meant. Having been to Alcatraz Island a few times, I could easily imagine it in my head. I also know who Al Capone was, and a lot of today’s children have no idea. One hopes that they would ask a parent or look him up themselves, but that missing background knowledge could prove challenging. I’ve never been one to say you have to finish a book, because there are too many good books out there to waste your time on a book that doesn’t grab your attention, I just hope that these kids give both of these books enough time to get to the good stuff.