Gennifer Choldenko Writes Their Favorite Novels

Gennifer Choldenko ’79
© Patricia Leeds Photography
Gennifer Choldenko ’79

“You know, you shouldn’t be proud of the fact that you sound like you’re 12 years old,” says Gennifer (Johnson) Choldenko’s otherwise doting husband.

Yet it’s her inner tweener voice that has vaulted Choldenko ’79 into the first rank of hugely popular young-adult fiction authors.

Al Capone Does My Shirts,” published in 2005 — the rarest sort of young-adult book, loved by parents, teachers and kids alike — garnered Choldenko a slew of awards, including a Newbery Honor Medal. She followed it with “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” in 2009. This summer’s release of “Al Capone Does My Homework” will complete the trilogy.

Moose, the 12-year-old narrator in the wry coming-of-age series, lives with his parents and autistic sister on 1930s Alcatraz, the prison island in San Francisco Bay, where his father is a prison guard and an electrician. “I want to be on Alcatraz like I want poison oak on my private parts,” Moose complains in the opening paragraphs of “Al Capone Does My Shirts.”

Only after he falls into well-intentioned cahoots with one of the prison’s most notorious inmates, gangster Al Capone, does Moose start to see the good in his island exile.

A relentless researcher and reviser, Choldenko, who lives in San Francisco, spent a year volunteering on Alcatraz Island to gather material for the books. She pored over photos of life on the island and read firsthand contemporary accounts by a child, a guard and an inmate to nail the historical detail.

Once she decided to include a criminal in her book, Capone seemed the best choice because “he wasn’t as bad as” the other infamous inmates, Choldenko says. “He was mostly a terrible man — a thug, a liar and a cheat. But he was a colorful crook with a very tiny — OK, infinitesimal — good side.”

The author of 11 books for children and young adults, Chol-denko is praised for her books’ emotional power as well as their humor, not to mention the Al Capone series’ nuanced depiction of a family struggling to deal with a severely autistic child.

She says Brandeis steered her fiction career. “My classes helped me explore different areas, and they provided me with a good foundation,” she says. “It took me a while to pursue creative writing after college, but Brandeis planted the seeds and I am grateful for that.”

Almost as grateful, perhaps, as her readers are for her funny, authentic, heartfelt 12-year-old’s voice.

— Se Jun Lee ’15