Billed as the “last installment” of Gennifer Choldenko’s Alcatraz trilogy, AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK stands out to me from the pack of widely-appealing middle-grade novels as one with some real grit to chew in the Newbery criteria department. It starts in Moose’s singular and vivid voice and moves deftly into its plot while giving just enough background to readers new to the trilogy for them to slip right in. The narrative moves quickly and seamlessly at a high pace; even when the only thing happening is Moose thinking, this novel always feels action packed. And Choldenko manages an amazing balancing act of serious issues (Moose’s concern for his sister’s independence, and for his father’s life) with a sense of humor and lighthearted tone that mimics real life, where these kinds of competing emotions are always incongruously jammed into a single experience.
Maybe this story is so deft, quick, seamless, that people forget to think about it as a Newbery contender? When I measure it up against the top titles for a similar age and wide appeal on the Goodreads Newbery 2014 list, and think about that feeling of “mastery” we’ve been talking about wanting from a Newbery title, they pale. We’ve talked about DOLL BONES (#2) and THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING (#4)….
Spot #3 on the Goodreads list is currently held by THE WATER CASTLE…and someone’s going to have to help me out here. I did, I promise, heed Vicky’s advice before reading it. The way its mystery is revealed to readers is very nicely done, and had my nine-year-old self hooked. And the way it drew to a close bumped it up a notch in my estimation, letting the reader savor secret knowledge. But the author was far too present in the narrative, and the prose too uninspired for me to see this as distinguished. The characters seemed even more manipulated to me than in DOLL BONES, and the author’s message kept pressing through. Nothing wrong with that in itself, though it disconnected me as a reader often enough that it was hard to keep my very willing sense of disbelief suspended. Then there’s some amazing implausibilities left dangling (the interlocking rooms; Ephraim’s super radioactivity). Did I steal a long lunch break to finish it? Yes. But good suspense alone does not make distinguished.
AL CAPONE has the suspense (a different kind to be sure) and the rest of the package to boot. I think it would give the Goodread’s #1, NAVIGATING EARLY, a good run for its money in discussion.