If Newsies had a YA/MG literary cousin, then City of Orphans by Avi would be it — an historical fiction that takes you to the gritty streets of New York City circa 1893 through the eyes of a young Newsie.
The streets of 1893 New York are full of life: crowded, filthy, dangerous. If you are a newsboy like thirteen-year- old Maks Geless, you need to watch out for Bruno, leader of the Plug Ugly Gang whose shadowy, sinister boss is plotting to take control of all the newsies on the lower East Side.
With Bruno’s boys in fierce pursuit, Maks discovers Willa, a strange girl who lives alone in an alley. It is she, stick in hand, who fights off the Plug Uglies–but further dangers await. Maks must find a way to free his sister Emma from The Tombs, the city jail where she has been imprisoned for stealing a watch at the glamorous new Waldorf Hotel. Maks, believing her innocent, has only four days to prove it. Fortunately, there is Bartleby Donck, the eccentric lawyer (among other employments) to guide Maks and Willa in the art of detection.
Against a backdrop alive with the sights and sounds of tenement New York, Maks, as boy detective, must confront a teeming world of wealth and crime, while struggling against powerful forces threatening new immigrants and the fabric of family love.
I’ll confess, I’ve long loved the movie-musical Newsies, so that aspect of City of Orphans had me hooked before I even started reading. But Avi’s unique writing style draws you into the story and puts you in Maks’s shoes as he navigates the children’s New York City of 1893 — a notably different New York City than the one navigated by adults at that time. The narrative voice is perfectly suited to the time period of the story, and draws you into the text and the world within.
Avi does a brilliant job of weaving in facts and historical tid-bits into the texture of his narrative, without making it obvious. The result is not only an informative as well as entertaining read — but a book that’s accessible for both younger readers and older readers alike! (City of Orphans would certainly be appropriate for younger middle grade readers, as well as teens and adults.)
Likewise, the interwoven plotlines and series of mysterious unfold organically — giving the reader a chance to play detective along with Maks and Willa, while still leaving room for some twists and surprises.
City of Orphans is a rollicking adventure through Newsie-era New York City, that is engaging, entertaining and compelling from start to finish. It is in stores today.