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City of Orphans by Avi, 350 pp, RL 5

City of Orphans is now in paperback!
While I have read a handful of books by the prolific, Newbery Award winning author Avi, his most recent book, City of Orphans, is the first I have reviewed here! In 1991 Avi won the Newbery Honor for his book The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a unique work of historical fiction in which the twelve year old Charlotte goes from a proper young girl to a mutinous pirate accused of murder as she sails from England to Rhode Island in 1802. In 1992 he won the Honor again for the the continually timely Nothing But the Truth, the story of a ninth grade student who is suspended for refusing to sing the National Anthem. In 2003 Avi, who has written over seventy books, won the Newbery Award for his work of historical fiction Crispin: The Cross of Lead, his fiftieth book, which is breathtaking. Set in the fourteenth century Crispin, a peasnt who did not know his own name until he was thirteen, is accused of a crime he did not commit, he is declared a "wolf's head" which means he can be killed on sight by anyone. Taking his family's only possession, a cross of lead, he flees his village and the adventure escalates. Avi continues Crispin's story with Crispin at the Edge of the World and Crispin: The End of Time. Avi is also the author of the Dimwood Forest series of six books featuring Poppy (also the title of the second book in the series) a determined deer mouse who befriends Ereth, a grizzled old porcupine. These books are perfect for readers who enjoyed Robert C O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or readers who are not quite ready for Brian Jacques' Redwall series. And, I would be remiss if I did not mention these other bestselling titles by Avi: The Good Dog, the story of malamute McKinley, leader of the pack of dogs 300 strong in Steamboat Springs, CO, who's loyalty to his owner is threatened when a she-wolf tries to entice the dogs to abandon mankind and join the wolves and help replenish their diminishing pack. Murder at Midnight and companion book Midnight Magic are set in the imaginary kingdom of Pergamontio and throw together the unlikely duo of Magnus the Magician who does not believe in magic and his servant boy, Fabrizio, who does. In the first book the pair have to uncover clues to a murder of be found guilty of the crime themselves. In the second book (which was actually published first but chronologically comes second) the two have to rid the princess of a ghost, whether it is real or not. Finally, The Secret School is a fantastic book about Ida Bidson who, in 1925, wants nothing more than to finish school and become a teacher. Her dreams are jeopardized when her one room school in remote Colorado is shut down. With the help of her classmates she secretly takes over the teaching job and prepares herself, her best friend Tom Khol, and the rest of the students for the exit exams that will allow Ida and Tom to continue on with high school.

City of Orphans caught my eye because of the time period and setting - New York City, 1893. I read and loved Julie Chibbaro's marvelous book deadly that followed the life of Prudence Galewski, a sixteen year old girl with an interest in science who lands the job of secretary to the man assigned with tracking down Typhoid Mary. While the book reads like a medical thriller, the slice of life during this tumultuous period in the history of New York City is equally compelling. In City of Orphans, which is one of the rare works of historical fiction that features a boy main character - for some reason most seem to be girls - we meet thirteen year old Maks Geless, a newsie who hawks The World, one of many papers for sale at the time, for a profit of eight cents a day. A third person narrator tells the story, using the dialect of the day like a dusting of powdered sugar on a piece of gingerbread cake. The "'bouts," "gonnas," "'ems" and admonitions to "listen hard, 'cause this is important" draw you into the story. The third person narrator also serves as the perfect voice to describe the brutal realities of life in the tenements and make the reader aware of just how urgent life was then. Describing Maks's work day, the narrator tells us that he would buy a bundle of papers for seventy-two cents then spend the next five hours selling them for two cents each, making a profit only if he sold all forty papers in one shift. "You're probably thinking, eight pennies - that ain't hardly worth working all them hours. But this is 1893. these are hard times. Factories closing. Workers laid off. Not many jobs. Housing not easy to find. Fact, people are calling these days the 'Great Panic of 1893.' And the thing is, Maks's family's rent is due this week. Fifteen bucks! For them, that's huge." Maks's family, his two older sisters Emma and Agnes, aged sixteen and fourteen, and his three younger brothers, Jacob, Eric and Ryker, their parents and a border, Monsieur Zulot, all live on the fifth floor of a tenement building in a one room apartment. For a time, they even had an uncle, aunt and their children sharing the space. Papa, who was a boat builder back in the Netherlands, and Agnes have jobs at a shoe factory nearby. Mama takes in washing and Emma has just gotten a job as a maid at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The family barely gets by on the five incomes, six if you count the border, and struggles to save money to send Agnes, who is exhibiting the first signs of tuberculosis, to a doctor.
Les Wickes Hine/Library of Congress, Prints & Photograph Division
When we first see Maks, he has just sold all his papers for the day and is trying to make it home with his profit and money to buy another bundle of papers the next day. This, however, has become increasingly difficult since Bruno and his gang, the Plug Uglies, have been jumping the newsies selling for The World, taking their haul and breaking their limbs. The newsies think that Joe Gorker, a corrupt political boss who is frequently featured on the front page of The World (which also means that the newsies should headlines featuring his misdeeds all over the city) is behind these attacks. When Bruno and his gang give chase, Maks finds himself trapped in an alley doing the only thing he can think of, something he knows is useless since most of the police are corrupt and no one cares about kids immigrant kids in this city - he yells for help. Something stirs at his feet and next thing he knows a raggedy girl with a big stick comes out swinging, making contact and chasing the gang away. The girl is Willa, a homeless orphan who lost her mother and presumably her father, to tuberculosis some six months earlier. As a way of thanking her and keeping himself protected through the dark streets on the way home, Maks invites Willa to dinner. However, when they reach home they find the family in distress. A police officer has just been to tell them that Emma has been arrested for stealing a very valuable Breguet watch from the room of a patron. 

The Tombs 1890s from New York Looking Back

From this point on, page 42 to be exact, City of Orphans is a non-stop roller coaster ride that is a rich mixture of fascinating characters, suspenseful action, amazing settings and a mystery to unravel. Warily at first, Maks and Willa bond as they realize that they both need each other. Mr and Mrs Geless welcome Willa into their home and eventually their family as they come to rely on her as well. Because his parents are equally distraught, unable to miss work and unsure how to navigate the American penal system, it is Maks and Willa who go to the Tombs to visit Emma and bring her food. Knowing that his parents are too frightened and unaware of how to hire a lawyer to free Emma, Maks takes her fate into his own hands and tracks down a detective living in the tenements who might help him. Mr Bartleby Donck is almost completely deaf, clearly almost dead from tuberculosis and constantly scribbling on the papers that litter his desk and seemingly unwilling to help the children. However, he tells Maks that maybe he can hunt for clues himself and, through a connection with a former fellow Pinkerton agent, Donck gets Maks a job at the Waldorf so he can investigate the crime and find the missing watch. How these story threads - from Willa, to Bruno, to the Waldorf and Donck - all weave together by the end of the book is fantastic! As the narrator says at the start of the final chapter, "So there's the story. Too many coincidences? Or miracles? You decide. The thing is, it's all true." Once again, Avi has written a highly readable story filled with fascinating historical facts and unforgettable characters. Greg Ruth provides a handful of character sketches that only made me want to see more illustrations from the story. I think that City of Orphans, like all of Avi's books, would be a superb read-out loud in a fourth or fifth grade classroom or at bedtime for older listeners. I've included a few pictures that caught me eye here, but Avi, besides an author's note, has an excellent "For Further Reading and Viewing" section at the end of the book. You can also checkout the website for the Tenement Museum or visit it if you are in New York City.

Don't miss Dan Barry's great article for the New York Times, Read All About it! Kids Vex Titans! about the real newsies of New York City and when they went on strike in 1899, as well as the new Broadway musical adaptation of the the 1992 Disney movie musical Newsies.

A brief list of Avi books that are sure to appeal to everyone...

PoppyCrispin at the Edge of the WorldCrispin: the End of Time

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleThe Good DogNothing But the Truth

RagweedPoppyPoppy & Rye
Ereth's BirthdayPoppy's ReturnPoppy and Ereth

Iron ThunderHard Gold

The Secret School

Murder at MidnightMidnight Magic


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