Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Newbery award-winning children’s book author

Karen Cushman

Gennifer Choldenko

Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place

Karen Cushman asked Gennifer Choldenko, “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your story, Al Capone Does My Shirts?”

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island at the time Al Capone was incarcerated there.

Q: Did you choose the setting first, before characters and plot? Did the story grow from the place or did the place grow from the story?

Choldenko: It was an intriguing fact about the setting, which launched the series Tales from Alcatraz beginning with the book Al Capone Does My Shirts. What happened was I read a newspaper article about kids who grew up on Alcatraz when there was a working penitentiary on the island. As soon as I read that article, I knew I wanted to “be” one of those kids. The way I get to “be” someone other than myself is to read a book about someone else or write a book about someone else. And since there were no middle grade novels about kids who lived on Alcatraz because their fathers were guard at the prison up top, I got to work.

Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?

Choldenko: The research which brought the series to life came from a myriad of sources. I volunteered to work as a docent on the island, read handwritten accounts of life on Alcatraz from a hole in the wall library on Alcatraz, scoured the National archives for information, spent weeks in the personal archives of Chuck Stucker, who grew up on the island. I interviewed dozens of guards who worked on the island, convicts who had been incarcerated on Alcatraz, adults who had grown up on the island because their fathers were guards, and GGNRA rangers who had spent years or sometimes decades researching Alcatraz. And then I read every book I could get my hands on about the place.

Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?

Choldenko: The Alcatraz setting enriched the story beyond my wildest dreams. There is a virtual treasure trove of curious and intriguing information about Alcatraz. There was no need to fictionalize when the truth itself was so fascinating, so I tried to stick closely to the facts. That said, there were occasions – especially in the later books in the series – where I took creative license.

Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?

Choldenko: I love when I get reader letters like the one I received a few days ago:

I am a 70-year-old grandmother who loves your Tales from Alcatraz. I introduced the first book to our 12-year-old granddaughter, and she was hooked immediately! She quickly devoured the entire series. At age 12, our grandchildren get to choose a place to visit in the U.S. and we take them there on a special trip, just the three of us. Because of her love for your books, she has chosen Alcatraz!

When I read Karen Cushman’s book Catherine, Called Birdy I believed I lived in the Middle Ages in an intensely visceral way. And that experience made me fascinated by that time frame in a way I had not been before. Perhaps I flatter myself here, but I hope this alchemy might happen for the girl whose grandmother is taking her to Alcatraz. So, what do I want my readers to understand about Alcatraz Island? History is riveting and historical fiction can bring it to life in your mind’s eye.


Thank you to Gennifer Choldenko for this close-up look at the unique setting for her Tales from Alcatraz books!

Gennifer Choldenko
Gennifer Choldenko and the Tales from Alcatraz

Learn more about Gennifer Choldenko.

Learn more about The Tales from Alcatraz.