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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Al Capone Does My Homework and The Water Castle

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.


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I’m reading Al Capone Does My Homework to the kids at bedtime now. As always, I’m blown away by Choldenko’s facility with dialogue, her humor and her ability to creative a propulsive, suspensive narrative that doesn’t sacrifice character development. I think it’s just as you say — she wears her gifts so lightly that she’s continually undestimated as a writer.

  2. I’m with you on The Water Castle. I had such high hopes for it because so many people seemed to be singing its praises, but it just did not feel distinguished to me. I enjoyed reading it, but it was lacking that “something”. The secondary characters were mostly two-dimensional (all the Wylies are rotten except for Will, Mr. Appledore is a stereotype of an eccentric old man, etc). The setting was not particularly stunning. The historical pieces did not seem firmly rooted in the cultural and social beliefs of the time period.
    There was a lot left dangling at the end, enough that I assumed this is the first in a series, though I don’t see any confirmation of that on the author’s website. If anything, it appears she purposefully left it open ended.
    The plot definitely felt manipulated, especially the ending.
    If I were watching someone bleed to death, my first thought would not be “I should force them to drink water!” Afterwards Ephraim’s sudden reversal in his beliefs about the water seemed forced and unexplained, manipulated because it made things more dramatic. He believed without proof, now strange things are happening and he’s adamant in his refusal? That says “set up for book two” to me.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says

    I agree that AL CAPONE is probably underrated in terms of Newbery buzz. It’s got the sequel thing working against it, but it has a nice combination of child appeal (not that that’s a criterion or anything) and distinguished elements.

    I’m scratching my head about the buzz for THE WATER CASTLE, too. Not a single literary element stood out as distinguished, especially in relationship to the other books we are considering. Moreover, there seemed to be lots of stuff shoehorned into the plot that didn’t seem to rise organically from the characters or the situation. I’d love a fuller explanation of why this one is distinguished. Anyone?

  4. Wow, I’m pretty surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for WATER CASTLE. Honestly, I have no idea what this means at all:

    “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.”

    To take the last part first: what message was it that kept pressing through? seriously. I don’t know. The characters begin manipulated: well, I just don’t see that – it seemed like a pretty straightforward mystery plot in which the characters were motivated by the internal desire to solve the mystery. And the author being present – again, I just don’t see it. Do you have some examples?

    For me, I see distinguished elements all over this book. Setting–both the house itself and the town at large are expertly drawn. The main characters are excellent–and even the relatively minor characters of Ephraim’s siblings come fully to life. And the intricate plot, interweaving the time periods, was amazing, in my opinion.

    “Ephraim’s super radioactivity” – wasn’t that becase he had just the night before been exposed to the “blue glow”? I felt like there were a lot of pieces like this (not just the ending) that perhaps seemed unexplained or left hanging, but just required a bit of detective work on the part of the reader. Whether that is appropriate for the intended audience, I’m not sure, bit it worked for me.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Mark, some for instances, though I don’t have page numbers fully marked on this reading:

      Price seemed like a token character, not fully lifelike to me, and clearly designed to play off of Ephraim to show how immature Ephraim was acting, and to rile him. This seemed to me both thin characterization, and too much authorial effort/presence…Price serves only to provoke Ephraim’s character arc, and when the plot requires his presence (to drive the truck). So I can’t believe in him.

      For as much importance as Ephraim’s father was supposed to have for him in his motivation, we really hear very little about him, and when we do it’s because it’s a moment when we need to be reminded that he’s important because we need something to explain Ephraim’s motivations again. Too much authorial presence. We should simply believe and know about their relationship, throughout the prose.

      The “historical” characters especially to me seemed stock…Orlando surely, and even Nora and Harry. So much is pinned on them that it’s important the reader believes in them, but they sounded to my ear like contemporary characters in a school play.

  5. Eric Carpenter says

    I enjoyed both these titles and find AL CAPONE slightly higher on my list, but in a year of excellent historical fiction (GHOST HAWK, DUKE, HATTIE EVER AFTER, PS ONE ELEVEN) I’m not sure it would make my nomination list.
    I think all the criticisms for WATER CASTLE can be made with even more strength against DOLL BONES. In comparison to DOLL BONES, the ancillary characters in WATER CASTLE are much more fully formed. And as a satisfying mystery WATER CASTLE is much more successful than DOLL BONES. WATER CASTLE’s main strength is it’s novel blend of science and fantasy, but since the criteria make no mention of distinction in genre bending we can’t really take this aspect into account in Newbery discussion.

    • Leonard Kim says

      I had a lot of problems with The Water Castle, but to avoid repeating others, I will limit my points to three and link them to Newbery criteria.

      1) The science in this book is even worse than Navigating Early and this problem is exacerbated by how great all the town kids except Ephraim are supposed to be at science. It’s not just that a Geiger counter won’t respond to a microwave oven. The whole big reveal, “the water isn’t magic. It’s Science!” is ludicrous. An unknown element that has quasi-magical radioactive properties when electrified? This is comic book science on the level of radioactive spiders that fails the “presentation of information” criterion in a big way.

      2) After name-checking Tuck Everlasting and saying (through Mallory) that the point of the book isn’t the fact of immortality but the choices people make around it, the book falls into exactly that trap. The climax turns out to be that the water is real. The consequences of that, which should be the heart of any good science fiction book are almost completely unexplored. None of the characters make any meaningful choices after the reveal even though the author gives each of the three main characters their own concluding chapter. Will still wants to be a scientist. Mallory gets to go off with mom, a development completely unrelated to anything. Ephraim is, what, a little more emotionally mature? To me this is a failure of both “interpretation of the theme or concept” and “delineation of characters” criteria.

      3) The whole intricate and intriguing setup leads one to expect that everything will eventually be made clear, and part of the fun of such a book is to make guesses and see how the author outsmarted you. I think it would be unfair to expect any reader to read the first 3/4 of the book any other way. But the big, it’s not magic it’s science reveal, barely wraps up anything. Mark’s explanation of Ephraim’s radioactivity is the sort of guess a reader could make, but that question and a dozen other plot details are left hanging. Most egregiously, the connection between the past and present story lines is not explicitly made. Sure this may be intentional, and we can all theorize about the connection between Nora and Mallory’s family or what Peary has to do with anything, but to me this really fails the “appropriateness of style” and “development of a plot” criteria.

  6. AL CAPONE is good, solid middle-grade historical fiction, but I wasn’t super impressed by it. Everything about it seemed well done, but mildly so. For example:
    I thought the answer to the whodunnit mystery was very easy to figure out, almost obvious.
    The tween love triangle between Moose, Annie and Piper was subtle, but still pretty cliched.
    Mr. and Mrs. Trixle were one-dimensional villains (that dimension being terrible).
    To sum up, I liked this book, but it in no way did it make me say, “Wow!” Also, it may be worth noting that I haven’t read the first two books in the series.
    I thought THE WATER CASTLE was super interesting, but too long and, in the end, not at all satisfying.

  7. One more thing: I could write a passionate defense of DOLL BONES, but instead I’ll just link to Betsy Bird’s review, which says pretty much everything I would say:

  8. Having not read either book yet, I just wanted to add from the peanut gallery that I think these two covers have got to be some of the weakest of the year. I have read Alcatraz #1 and agreed with it’s Newbery Honor distinction.

  9. When I first read The Water Castle I was all about it. I liked the suspense, the feeling like I knew a secret at the end, and I liked the characters. I was feeling sort of cynical by that point in the year because I had disliked so many books. Now that I have read more of the books released since I have the same feelings toward it as Nina. It is excellent as far as a rollicking good time read goes, but not distinguished in terms of Newbery.

  10. I’m with you on The Water Castle so far, Nina. It’s taking me forever to get through it. I was especially peeved about the chapter where the three kids are suddenly friends after five minutes in a tunnel.

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