June 12

Al Capone Does My Shirts: Critical Review

Newbery Honored book, Al Capone Does My Shirts is about a twelve-year-old boy named Moose Flannagan who moves to Alcatraz with his family and the struggles he faces as he comes of age. Considering the setting of the story and the situation Moose’s family was in, Choldenko could have easily focused solely on what life was like living on Alcatraz and still have a good book. Instead, Choldenko used subtle details to make readers more aware of what life was like outside of Alcatraz to add authenticity to the story.

There are certain events that happen that when they happen—no matter how old the person is—everyone in the country is going to be aware of to some degree. In 1935, one of these events was the great depression. Moose Flannagan, the narrator of Al Capone Does My Shirts, does not directly mention the great depression, but the fact each chapter is dated between January 5 and June 12, 1935 lets the sophisticated reader know aware that the depression was in full-bloom.

For readers not as well versed in American history, there are several hints as to the economic state of America in that time.  One example is seen while Moose is worrying over whether the warden knows about his sister, Natalie, and if she’s supposed to be a secret: “There were 237 electricians who applied for the job my dad got. If it were me, I’d have kept my mouth shut about having a daughter like Natalie (page 19).”

This is a great way of simply showing the economic times and the character’s awareness of it. Obviously, Moose and his family are not as concerned about the recession as others, because his father has two jobs, but the family is aware of the financial hardships others face. Instead of blatantly saying, “Because of the Great Depression, my father was lucky to get the job. A lot of people applied,” she drops in the detail subtly, neatly, and lets readers know how bad the economy was at the time. Even if young readers do not realize 237 people for one job is a lot of applicants during a healthy economy, they will recognize that 237 people is a lot of people. They will also know that, with so many applicants, Moose’s father was lucky to have received his job at Alcatraz.

Later in the book, Moose observes a once-common ritual. His father is reading the newspaper: “My father reads Natalie headlines from the newspaper, adding numbers to every one.  “Work resumes on the Golden Gate Bridge. 103 men are put back to work, (…) (pg. 23).”

The phrase, “103 men put back to work” lets us know 103 men were out of work and provides another hint about the depression. But Choldenko also provides a new detail of the times in the passage: the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. The word “resume” also lets readers know that people were working on building the bridge, stopped and are starting again.

According to GoldenGateBridge.org, construction on The Golden Gate Bridge  “commenced on January 5, 1933 and the Bridge was open to vehicular traffic on May 28, 1937.” It also states that there were ten different contractors working on the Golden Gate Bridge at separate times during those four years. This small detail, especially since the characters live on Alcatraz–near the Golden Gate Bridge—adds a little historical trivia to the period and authenticity to the time.

Gennifer Choldenko adds subtle details not directly related to the story, to add authenticity and expand the reader’s knowledge of the times.

June 6

Spalding: MFA Program Worth It?

I’ve been asked by a few writing friends if I thought the MFA program I’m in at Spalding will be worth the cost of tuition. Obviously I think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be enrolled and I won’t know for certain how I feel about the entire program until after I get through my first semester. But I thought I would explain what I’ve heard about MFA programs, what I’ve seen at Spalding, and what I think of the program so far for those who are curious.

**Please note, I’m not trying to promote Spalding.  It’s the only true reference I have to pull from experience-wise.**

A little information on Spalding first.  Spalding’s MFA program is a low-residency program.  That means students need to be on campus ten days a semester, which they call residency, unless you’re attending a summer semester.  In that case your 10 days will be spent in a foreign country.  This year students went to Paris, France. Next summer, they’ll go to Dublin, Ireland.  After the residency, students work from home with guidance from their mentor. Spalding offers Children’s/Young Adult fiction, Fiction, Screenwriting, Playwriting, Poetry, and Creative Non-fiction.  I learned about Spalding, because I was in close proximity of the school in High School.  I did not know about the MFA program until I saw it listed as one of the top 10 creative writing MFA programs in multiple writing magazines. To learn more about the program go to Spalding’s MFA website.

Creative Writing MFA programs only write literary fiction.

I’ve heard and read this a lot. I’ve also read that because they only write literary fiction, a lot of writing suffered from the program.  The author was a contemporary novelist and the school insisted on him/her writing literary. This was a concern for me. I’m a a contemporary writer and though I don’t mind reading literary pieces, I don’t believe I’d do well with that style of writing on more than a trial basis. This was especially a concern when I realized that the two books we needed to read before residency were both literary fiction.  However, we were required to workshop our peers writing during the residency as well. I found some reassurance in reading the excerpts.  Their were contemporary pieces to critique.

During the actual residency at Spalding, I picked up on a lot of their techniques and logic. They want their students well-rounded. So each semester they focus on a different aspect/genre of writing that they expect everyone to participate in during residency. Of course, they offer lectures on other topics, subjects and material. This semester the focus was on children’s books.  Next semester, from what I understand, the focus will be on screenwriting. They prefer students to do an exploratory semester their second semester–have them try something other than their focus.  A lot of people suggested I try screenwriting out, next semester. I believe you can try a different style for every semester if you like though. The different types of experiences will help the writing in different ways. Poetry for instance teaches rhythm and imagery.  Screenwriting teaches you how to tell a lot in a very short amount of space/time, etc.

No one said anything about restricting oneself to literary fiction when writing.  In fact a lot of contemporary novels were referenced in lectures. I’ve heard that a lot of MFA programs are literary focused, but I do not get the sense that Spalding is.

Creative Writing MFA programs result in one or two short stories a semester.

I work-shopped with ten students, an alum who was volunteering to help with the program and two mentors. I met several other people outside the group.  None of which, are going to be writing short stories during the semester. I will be working on two novels during my first semester.  Shadowed, and Entangled.

I’ve been editing Shadowed for years, as some of you may know.  I first wrote a rough draft of Entangled at fifteen.  I’ve rewritten it several times since then, in totally different ways, but have not yet fallen in love with a discovery draft yet. I doubt either book will be complete by the end of the semester.  But I imagine Shadowed will be much cleaner, more polished and significantly closer to being ready for publication. Hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to write out Entangled and even have a much stronger discovery draft–if not a rough draft carved out.

I’m hoping to have gone through the first 100 pages of both books with my mentor by the end of the semester.

I’ve heard from a few transfer students that their are writing programs like this–they have you turn short stories in throughout the semester and nothing more.  This often results in students graduating from college and never writing a story again, because they wrote to fill a deadline.  Spalding, I’m told, wants to teach students how to fit writing into their daily life, which is why they have the mentorship working the way they do.

Creative Writing MFA programs don’t teach you anything you can’t learn on your own.

I believe you can learn anything on your own, from car mechanics to archery to martial arts to crocheting.  Classes are always offered in those areas though. So, this statement is true in my mind, but I imagine you’ll learn a lot more and a lot faster with an experienced mentor at your side. Spalding’s mentors have all been published in their field. I know several of the ones in my field of concentration have won awards for their writing and have active careers. Each semester you’re supposed to work with a different mentor, which would give you more/different perspectives and experiences in writing, and in your writing than working with the same person year-after-year-after-year. You’re going to continue learning after the program–you never stop learning, but by the time I graduate from Spalding, I suspect I’ll have a better idea of how to figure out how to improve my writing and use the resources I picked up on, which will make me improve faster, even on my own.

You also meet a lot of great people at the residency, which not only can help you with your writing, or promoting your book but can also provide you with the emotional support you need when times are hard. You also have a great potential resource of information in areas you may need later for other books.  I met nurses, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, career-military, a baker…etc. A lot of great sources you’re not going to easily get on your own.

Creative Writing MFA programs are expensive.

Depending on your program and your income, they can be expensive. The lowest-priced one I’ve heard of is $7,000 a semester. At the moment, Spalding is looking at $7,900 a semester. Some will say that’s chump change, others, like me, will not.  Their are options, grants and scholarships can help with the cost, even for freshman.  Spalding doesn’t offer grants and only a very select few get scholarships, from my understanding.  Spalding does offer an assistantship program for those who want to go that route.  The more you work, the more they knock your tuition down.  I think the minimum they’ll knock it is $1,000. And, of course, student loans. Spalding allows you to stay in the program as long as you need, so long as you graduate in ten years.

My understanding of this is, you can apply for Spalding, pay $8,000 in cash for your first semester.  Wait two years to save up another $8,000, attend your second semester and keep the pattern going until you graduate.  You only need four semesters to graduate. It just depends on what you prefer and can afford.

Another way to think of it is that, sending your novel to a good, professional editor would cost approximately the same amount as you are spending on a semester at Spalding. (I’ve looked into the pricing but not extensively, so please correct me if you have better knowledge.)  I don’t just mean copy editing.

I’ve been told my mentor will read every page, dissect every paragraph and question every comma. She’ll make suggestions on how to improve my story AND help me get the story as grammatically correct as possible. That means I’d get proofreading, copy editing, substantive editing, and  developmental editing.  To get all those services, from what I’ve seen, you’ll have to pay significantly more than $8,000 a semester. All the while learning a lot more about writing than one would from such an editor.  I’m also not required to work on the same piece of writing for all four semesters.  I can work on something different each semester if I want.

To me, with everything I know about Spalding’s program, I think it’ll be worth going to an MFA program. I would recommend it to whoever is interested at this point, but I know it’s not for everyone. If this has tugged your interest and you’d like to know more about Spalding’s program, feel free to ask questions. I’ll do my best to answer them. As I’ve mentioned before, I also plan on recording as much of the experience as I can on this blog.

Are you in an MFA program?  Tell us about your experience. Would you be interested in trying one?  What would you most hope to gain from the program?

June 5

Al Capone Does My Shirts: A book Review

Murderers, mob bosses, and convicts . . . these guys are not your average neighbors. Unless you live on Alcatraz. It’s 1935 and twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family have just moved to the infamous island that’s home to criminals like notorious escapee Roy Gardner, Machine Gun Kelly, and of course, Al Capone. Now Moose has to try to fit in at his new school, avoid getting caught up in one of the warden’s daughter’s countless plots, and keep an eye on his sister Natalie, who’s not like other kids. All Moose wants to do is protect Natalie, live up to his parents’ expectations, and stay out of trouble. But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away.

Traditionally, books that feature 12-year-old protagonists are for middle grade readers.  Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko is listed as a Young Adult novel.  The book felt like it didn’t fit in either category. I believe Young Adult  and adult readers would enjoy it. However, this book did not hold me hostage.  I could have easily put the book down.  I probably would have needed to return to it eventually, but it NEVER threatened to keep me up all night.

The description above is actually pretty accurate of the book.  Their is no linear plot, though the theme is strongly toward family and identity. Moose Flanagan narrates the story and I must say he has some pretty interesting views of the world he’s now living in, Alcatraz. The very first pages opens with:

Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
     I’m not the only kid who lives here.  There’s my sister, Natalie, except she doesn’t count.  And there are twenty-three other kids who live on the island because their dads work as guards or cooks or doctors or electricians for the prison, like my dad does.  Plus, there are a ton of murderers, rapists, hit men, con men, stickup men, embezzlers, connivers, burglars, kidnappers and maybe even an innocent person or two, though I doubt it.
      The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don’t want.  I never knew prisons could be picky, but I guess they can.  You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst.  Unless you’re me.  I came here because my mother said I had to.

Granted, some of this information is repeated through dialogue later in the book but it felt like a great introduction to this Newbery Honored book and I really didn’t mind the repetition.

Chodenko has a way of keeping my interest.  When the novelty of living on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s began to wane, Chodenko introduced other elements to the story that kept me going. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the different kind of dynamics you see in this book.  But one of my favorite was the families interaction with Natalie and Natalie herself.

Natalie is Moose’s older sister. But their mother insists every year that she is 10. At the beginning of the book she’s 15, by the end she’s 16. Though the book itself doesn’t reveal what’s wrong with Natalie, which sticks to the times because the condition wasn’t identified until 1943, the sophisticated reader could likely guess. And the author provides a great deal of information in her Author’s Note at the end of the book, both on her research and Natalie herself.

Natalie has Autism.  And as far as I can tell, Chodenko gives a very accurate account of the condition–which apparently she grew up around.  Her sister “had a severe form of autism.”  Natalie is likeable, and has a personality of her own, despite her condition. Her father took a job at Alcatraz with the hope of getting her into a school that could help “normalize her.”  Her mother seems to be the one who fights the hardest for Natalie’s well-being, though everyone fights for her in some way.  Even Natalie fights for herself.

The Autism is seen throughout the story and it is on the forefront of Moose’s mind, especially since his sister’s condition keeps uprooting his life. In some ways, the changes are small.  Other times, they’re large. But Chodenko doesn’t make it the sole focus of the book.  Moose plays baseball, tries to make friends at the new school he’s attending, he gets into trouble because of Piper’s, the Warden’s daughter, scheme.

My main issue with this book is that I kept having to remind myself that Moose was 12 years old.  Possibly 13 by the end of the book.  His voice sounded too mature, though his actions would sometimes match a kid his age. Al Capone’s actions at the end of the book seemed a little too convenient.  This may be because the book discuses the bad things he’s known for and not the good, though it’s a great setup for the book’s sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

I would like to read Al Capone Shines my Shoes when I have some free time.  And I would recommend Al Capone Does My Shirts to anyone who enjoys historical novels, with well-rounded, realistic characters, who just happen to live on Alcatraz–which a lot of people actually did.  Boy or girl, adult or child, this book has a little bit of everything for the reader.

For those who are interested, I’ll try to post a critical essay on Al Capone Does My Shirts, where I try analyze a writing aspect of the book.  For example, Moose’s voice, the description or the way things are weaved into the book.

Have you read Al Capone Does My Shirts?  What are your thoughts?