Newbery-honored Gennifer Choldenko talks 'Al Capone' and elephants

Newbery-honored Gennifer Choldenko talks 'Al Capone' and elephants


Sausalito, Calif., author Gennifer Choldenko, who writes for the 8-and-up crowd, is best known for her "Tales from Alcatraz" series, which has sold 2 million copies since its 2004 launch and earned the coveted Newbery Honor. The first book, "Al Capone Does My Shirts," follows middle schooler Moose and his autistic sister Natalie as they acclimate to life on the infamous island where their father works as a prison guard. Choldenko's new book, "Orphan Eleven," follows the adventures of four orphans who find work and new friends in a traveling circus.

Q: You do intense research on your topics and settings. How did you do that with Alcatraz?

A: When I would drive my kids to school in the 1990s, I would always spot Alcatraz in the distance. One day I saw an article about something called Alcatraz Alumni Day, and knew my next book would be set there. I volunteered for a year on the island, from 1998 to 1999. I would give tours, answer questions and study in the hole-in-wall library on Alcatraz that had unpublished notes from people who had lived on the island, including guards and their families.

Q: Today, there are many books, TV shows and movies with characters on the autism spectrum. But not 16 years ago. How did you create Natalie?

A: I used some real-life experiences from growing up with my sister, who actually had a much more pronounced case of autism than Natalie. But I also did a lot of research. I kind of wrote the book that I needed to read when I was a kid, because I was trying to grapple with the love I had for my sister and also my resentment towards her. That's not always the easiest thing to express as a kid and it's not something your parents always encourage.

Q: You've said that Lucy, the protagonist of your new book, is more like you than any character you've ever written. How so?

A: She has selective mutism. I did not have that but I became very quiet around 11. On some level, something froze inside of me at that time and it's really easy for me to write at that voice.

Q: What do you like best about writing for this age group?

A: When you're around that age, everything is changing. Your body, teeth, opinions. Anything can happen. To me, that makes it a really exciting time to capture in a book. And I have no interest in writing for adults. I find it boring. I feel like adults are settled in a lot of ways.

Q: What is it about the circus that captured your imagination?

A: I think the circus in 1939 was a place for different types of people. There weren't a ton of creative outlets, so if you were a creative, that's where you'd probably be. These days we've sort of flattened the circus into one or two acts but it wasn't like that at all. It was this really competitive place where a lot of people wanted to be.

Q: You did some pretty amazing travel research for this book. Tell us about that.

A: Lucy wants to work with elephants. So I traveled to Thailand to spend time with elephants at four different elephant sanctuaries. It was pretty amazing. They are such intelligent animals, and it's also a female society, which I love.

Q: How are you getting your literary fix these days?

A: I love audio books. They are such a treat. There is something about being read to that touches a different part of me. It's also very useful. I can listen to a book while walking the dog, driving in the car and just about anywhere.


"The Night Diary" by Veera Hiranandani: The second I opened this book I was caught by the depth of the narrative voice. Hiranandani tells a riveting story set in Pakistan and India in 1947. But it is Hiranandani's talent with voice and characters that will win your heart.

"Other Words for Home" by Jasmine Wargo: Wargo captures one immigrant's experience in an insightful and involving way. This is a book that will open your mind and your heart. My favorite book of 2019.

"One Crazy Summer" by Rita Williams Garcia: I love the sisters in this book. They are fresh and funny and original. And I love the way Williams Garcia brings the summer of 1968 to life.

"El Deafo" by Cece Bell: El Deafo is so funny and so painfully real. This is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels.

"The Watsons Go to Birmingham" by Christopher Paul Curtis: I'm attracted to books that are both hilarious and deeply moving. A lot of Christopher Paul Curtis's books are like this, but "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" is my absolute favorite.

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