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City of Orphans


City of Orphans

written by Avi , illustrated by Greg Ruth

“Amazing things happen,” our narrator starts off. And for Maks Geless and Willa Brunswick, that’s certainly true. First, it’s amazing that they even meet. Maks is a newsie, a young boy who makes money to help support his family by selling copies of The World, one of New York City’s many newspapers at the end of the 19th century. Willa is asleep in the alley where she lives when Maks stumbles across her. He’s trying to escape Bruno, one of the Plug Uglies, a gang that tries to make newsies’ lives harder. When he’s cornered, he hollers “Help!” and Willa jumps up and fends Bruno off with a stick.

Not the usual way of making friends, but Maks and Willa take it and run, literally, for Maks’s home, where the orphaned, homeless Willa is invited to stay. What would usually be a pleasant Monday night dinner for the Geless family turns sour when they find out that Emma, the eldest child, has been arrested at the Waldorf Hotel, where she works. She is charged with stealing a hotel guest’s gold watch, but Maks and his family are sure she hasn’t done it. Being a poor, immigrant family living in a tenement, they can’t afford a lawyer, either. With Emma’s trial starting on Saturday, a race against the clock begins as Maks tries to solve a mystery so that he can free his sister.

Willa, happy to join the family, is along for the ride, and she accompanies Maks to the office of Bartleby Donck, a private investigator, to get help. Then she and Maks go undercover as boy and girl detectives. But Bruno and the Plug Uglies are still after them, and Maks still needs to earn his eight pennies a day selling newspapers in order to support his family. Willa has a secret of her own, and it just may have to do with Bruno, though she doesn’t know it yet.

Like any good mystery, all of these storylines wind around and tie together, but CITY OF ORPHANS is far from predictable. While kids being clever and taking charge of their lives is the foreground of the story, Avi’s backdrop is equally important: the book is richly thought out and realized. It’s an adventurous, fun tale, with a vivid, gritty backdrop of 1893 New York, a city driven by crime and money. No one is going to make proving Emma’s innocence easy, and Maks has to fight through a lot of uncaring adults to save his sister.

The ending is satisfying but not a fairy tale, and Maks and Willa make a great crime-fighting team. Nothing here is sentimental or sappy, and nobody is more or less powerful than they really could have been in Maks and Willa’s world. Kids who like adventures, mysteries, historical fiction and even fantasy will love CITY OF ORPHANS.

Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on September 6, 2011

City of Orphans
written by Avi , illustrated by Greg Ruth

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2011
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
  • ISBN-10: 1416971025
  • ISBN-13: 9781416971023