Well, my summer is nearly at an end, and I’ve almost finished reading the twenty books nominated for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. Last night, I finished #19, City of Orphans by Avi (also nominated for the South Carolina Junior Book Award). Had this book not been nominated for the SCCBA, I don’t know that I would have picked it up. It’s no secret that historical fiction is not my favorite genre. (For those wondering, the 20th SCCBA nominee left to read is also historical fiction. I’ve put it off as long as possible.) After reading City of Orphans, though, I’m honestly glad I gave this book a chance.
For the most part, this is not a particularly happy book, but it does explore what life was like for kids in turn-of-the-century New York. (Hint: If you had no money, it was bad.) The title, City of Orphans, refers to the fact that even kids with parents, most of whom were immigrants, were–for all intents and purposes–orphans. It was up to them to figure out how and where to make money, where to go when they needed help, and how to get out of bad situations. In this book, we meet Maks and Willa, two “orphans” just trying to survive in this bleak world.
It’s 1893, and New York City is teeming with people–immigrants, crooks, cops, and, most of all, kids. Kids just trying to survive, trying to make a few cents to help their families. One of these kids is Maks Geless. Maks is a newsie. (He sells newspapers on street corners.)
One night, Maks runs into some trouble on his way home from work. Trouble by the name of Bruno and the Plug Ugly Gang. Maks is sure he’s dead meat…until a dirty, homeless girl with a big stick saves him. This girl, Willa, has lived in the streets for months, and Maks figures the least he can do is give her a place to stay for coming to his rescue. So Maks takes Willa home to stay with his family.
Maks’ family, immigrants from Denmark, lives in a tenement, nearly ten people crammed into one small apartment, but it’s home, and they’re all together…until Maks’ older sister Emma is arrested! Maks is sure that Emma must be innocent. There’s simply no way she could have stolen a watch from someone at the new, fancy Waldorf hotel where she works. Maks’ parents are unfamiliar with the way things really work in America, so it’s up to Maks–and his new friend Willa–to figure out just what happened with Emma and the case of the stolen watch.
All the while, Maks and Willa have to watch out for the scary Bruno and this gang, just waiting to terrorize them and take their meager earnings. Can these two kids save their own necks while trying to get Maks’ sister out of jail? And is anyone willing to help two poor kids–who have no money–without expecting something in return? What will these two junior detectives discover in their quest for the truth? The answers will shock even them and will have the power to turn their worlds upside down. Learn how two kids navigate the perilous waters of turn-of-the-century New York when you read City of Orphans by Avi!
I think City of Orphans is a great discussion-starter about what kids experienced throughout history. As a former social studies teacher, I can tell you that most lessons focus on what adults did in the past. Not much attention is given to kids’ experiences, and that’s a shame. I think many students today would find lessons more engaging and relatable if they could somehow identify with the people they were studying. Do we need to ignore what adults were doing during historical periods? No, but we shouldn’t discount a large portion of the population just because they’re young. (I see a research project in the future for some of my students!)
I also believe City of Orphans could be a “gateway” book to other works of literature. Those that immediately come to mind are the works of Charles Dickens, particularly Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. City of Orphans, while not quite as bleak–or wordy–as Dickens’ works, has the same kind of tone. I don’t particularly care for Dickens, but others do, and readers who really enjoy City of Orphans may want to explore a few of these classics.
I hope you enjoy City of Orphans as much as I did!