Excerpt from Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Al Capone Shines My Shoes

By Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Shines My Shoes
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2009,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2011,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Print Excerpt


I don’t know for certain it was Capone who helped us. I mean the guy is locked up in a five-by-nine-foot cell. He’s not allowed to make a phone call or write a letter that isn’t censored word for word. It doesn’t seem possible he could have done anything to help us, even if he wanted to.

But out of desperation, I sent a letter asking Capone for help and Natalie got accepted. Then I got a note in the pocket of my newly laundered shirt: Done, it said.

I haven’t told anyone about this. It’s something I try not to think about, but today, the day Nat’s finally leaving for school, I can’t keep my mind from going over the details again and again.

The thing that stumps me is why. I never even met Al Capone . . . why would he help me?

I watch Nat as she sits on the living room floor going through our books one by one. She looks almost like a regular sixteen-year-old this morning, if her mouth wasn’t twitching right and right and right again and her shoulders were just down where they’re supposed to be. She opens a book, fans her face with the pages, then sets the book back on the shelf, just exactly as it was. She has been through one entire shelf this way. Now she’s working on the second.

Normally, my mom wouldn’t let her do this, but today she doesn’t want to take the chance of upsetting her.

“You ready to go, Natalie?” my mother asks.

Nat moves faster. She fans the pages so quickly each book sounds like one quick ffffrrrt. All I hear is ffffrrrt ffffrrrt ffffrrrt as I look out our front window down to the dock. Sure enough there’s Officer Trixle. He’s supposed to be off today, but Trixle can’t keep his nose out of our business. He’s almost as much trouble as Piper, the warden’s daughter—only not half as pretty. When you look like Piper does, people forgive a whole lot of things, but never mind about that. What I think about Piper is kind of embarrassing, to tell you the truth.

My father comes out of the bathroom. The toilet is running again. The plumbing in 64 building is held together with bubble gum and last year’s oatmeal stuck hard and solid. But luckily for us, Seven Fingers, our very own felon plumber, fixes it for free.

Not exactly for free actually. We pay him a chocolate bar every time, but no one is supposed to know that.

“Time to go, Natalie,” my mom says.

Natalie is wearing a new yellow dress today. My mother cut the pattern, but the convicts in the tailor shop sewed it. The cons did a pretty good job. Only the belt is bugging Nat. She pulls at it, weaving it in and out of the loops. In and out. In and out. Nat’s mouth puckers to one side. “Moose school. Natalie home,” she says.

“Not today,” my mother says brightly. “Today is your big day. Today you’re going to school.”

Not today,” Nat tells her. “Not today. Not today.”

I can’t help smiling at this. Natalie likes to repeat what you say and here she’s repeating my mom’s exact words with a change of inflection that makes them say what Natalie wants them to say and not at all what my mother meant. I love when Natalie outsmarts Mom this way. Sometimes Nat is smarter than we are. Other times, she doesn’t understand the first thing about anything. That’s the trouble with Natalie—you never know which way she’ll go.

The first time Nat went to the Esther P. Marinoff School she pitched a fit the size of Oklahoma and they kicked her out, but I don’t think that will happen this time. She’s getting better in her own weird way. I used to say Nat’s like a human adding machine without the human part, but now she’s touching down human more days than not. And each time she does it feels as if the sun has come out after sixty straight days of rain.

Excerpted from Al Capone Shines my Shoes © Copyright 2009 by Gennifer Choldenko. Reprinted with permission by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. All rights reserved.

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