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City of Orphans

What’s this book about?

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.


Story Behind the Story

Like mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, my fore­bears came from Europe, land­ed on Ellis Island, and went on to New York City, where they stayed. One of the places they stayed was New York City’s Low­er East Side. This was a time when the city had some thir­ty dai­ly news­pa­pers that were not writ­ten in the Eng­lish lan­guage. Amaz­ing­ly enough, much of the ten­e­ment archi­tec­ture, has remained in place. There is even an exist­ing, won­der­ful Ten­e­ment Muse­um, where I saw and learned a great deal, and which helped me write my nov­el, City of Orphans, a nov­el about immi­grant life in New York, at the end of the 19th Century.

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Awards and Recognition

  • Col­orado Book Awards Finalist
  • Dorothy Can­field Fish­er Book Award Mas­ter List (VT)
  • ILA Teach­ers’ Choices
  • Kirkus Best Chil­dren’s Book
  • Nut­meg Book Award Nom­i­nee (CT)
  • Young Hoosier Book Award Nom­i­nee (IN)


“An immi­grant fam­i­ly tries to sur­vive crime, pover­ty and cor­rup­tion in 1893 New York City.

“Earn­ing enough mon­ey to cov­er the rent and basic needs in this year of eco­nom­ic pan­ic is an end­less strug­gle for every mem­ber of the fam­i­ly. Every pen­ny counts, even the eight cents dai­ly prof­it 13-year-old Maks earns by sell­ing news­pa­pers. Maks also must cope with vio­lent attacks by a street gang and its vicious leader, who in turn is being manip­u­lat­ed by some­one even more pow­er­ful. Now Maks’ sis­ter has been wrong­ly arrest­ed for steal­ing a watch at her job in the glam­orous Wal­dorf Hotel and is in the noto­ri­ous Tombs prison await­ing tri­al. How will they prove her inno­cence? Maks finds help and friend­ship from Willa, a home­less street urchin, and Bartle­by Don­ck, an eccen­tric lawyer. Avi’s vivid recre­ation of the sights and sounds of that time and place is spot on, mas­ter­ful­ly weav­ing accu­rate his­tor­i­cal details with Maks’ expe­ri­ences as he encoun­ters the city of sun­shine and shad­ow. An omni­scient nar­ra­tor speaks direct­ly to read­ers, estab­lish­ing an imme­di­a­cy that allows them to feel the char­ac­ters’ fears and wor­ries and hopes.

“Hero­ic deeds, nar­row escapes, das­tard­ly vil­lains, amaz­ing coin­ci­dences and a fam­i­ly rich in love and hope are all part of an intri­cate and end­less­ly enter­tain­ing adven­ture. Ter­rif­ic!” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

“Thir­teen-year-old Maks Geless, the old­est son of Dan­ish immi­grants, makes eight cents a day hawk­ing The World on Man­hat­tan street cor­ners in 1893. New­bery Medal­ist Avi tells his sto­ry in a vibrant, unso­phis­ti­cat­ed, present-tense voice (a typ­i­cal chap­ter begins, “Okay, now it’s the next day—Tuesday”), and it’s a hard life. Maks’s sis­ter Agnes has TB, the shoe fac­to­ry where Agnes and Mr. Geless work is sus­pend­ing oper­a­tions, and the gro­cer and land­lord want their accounts paid. Then Maks’s old­est sis­ter, Emma, is accused of steal­ing from a guest at the Wal­dorf Hotel, where she is a maid. Amid this strife, the good-heart­ed Geless­es take in Willa, a home­less girl who saved Maks from a street gang. Maks and Willa must prove Emma’s inno­cence, with the help of an odd, pos­si­bly dying detec­tive (he’s cough­ing up blood, too). The con­trasts among Maks’s family’s squalid ten­e­ment exis­tence; Emma’s incar­cer­a­tion in the Tombs, the city’s infa­mous prison; and the splen­dor of the Wal­dorf bring a stark por­trait of 19th-cen­tu­ry soci­ety to a ter­rif­i­cal­ly excit­ing read, with Ruth’s fine pen­cil por­traits adding to the over­all appeal).” (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, starred review)

“Dick­en­sian street action comes to New York’s Low­er East Side in this grip­ping sto­ry, set in 1893, of news­boy Maks, 13, who feels “hun­gry twen­ty-five hours a day.” After res­cu­ing a filthy, home­less girl, Willa, Maks takes her to the crowd­ed ten­e­ment he shares with his strug­gling Dan­ish immi­grant fam­i­ly. Pur­sued by Bruno, the leader of the Plug Ugly street gang, Maks is des­per­ate to save his sis­ter, Emma, who was impris­oned after being false­ly accused of steal­ing a watch from the Wal­dorf Hotel, where she worked as a clean­er. Just as com­pelling as the fast-mov­ing plot’s twists and turns is the story’s social real­ism, brought home by the con­trasts between the over­crowd­ed, unsan­i­tary slums (“No water, gas, elec­tric­i­ty”) and the lux­u­ri­ous Wal­dorf. Then there are the unspeak­able con­di­tions in prison, where, even as a pris­on­er, Emma must pay for food. Avi writes in an imme­di­ate, third-per­son, present-tense voice, most­ly from Maks’ col­lo­qui­al view­point (“He’s full of heartache, but no one is see­ing it”), with occa­sion­al switch­es to Willa and to the des­per­ate young gang­ster leader. Thread­ing togeth­er the dra­ma are tense mys­ter­ies: Is Willa real­ly an orphan? Who stole the watch? A riv­et­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­el.” (Book­list, starred review)

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