City of Orphans by Avi – Review

Book Jacket:

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.

You can read an excerpt here.


If you want to know what life was like for a kid in New York in 1893, read this book.

City of Orphans is a sumptuous feast of historic New York City. From life on the streets to the upper crust Waldorf Hotel, Avi does a wonderful job recreating the 19th century Big Apple – what it looked, smelled, and tasted like. This story also gently explores the socioeconomic realities of a family where everyone has to work to get by, during a time when the gulf between the haves and have nots was particularly vast, and manages to do so in an engaging, approachable way. It was also lovely to see an immigrant story about first generation children, the kids who grow up knowing more about America than their parents, and how they often have to take responsibility for the family at a very young age.

But while this book provides a wonderful look at historic New York, honesty it felt like the story was secondary to the world. The narrative is clean and moves right along, but I felt a bit detached from the story. I think in part that was due to the omniscient narrator, who kept me a little emotionally distant from the characters, but it was also due, I think, to the fact that the plot doesn’t ever really build momentum. This story is steady, but it also feels a bit flat. I honestly can’t call it a detective story, because there was very little mystery to it all (you’ll know very early on whodunit), and the way the story all comes together at the end just wasn’t entirely satisfying. It was a little too packaged, a little too coincidental, and it just fell a little too short.

Still, Maks and Willa make for a plucky, engaging pair, and the moral of the story – family togetherness – is downright sweet. Things stay pretty broad on the character front – Maks’ parents in particular are very one-note, and the villains of the piece definitely lean towards caricature – but all in all, City of Orphans is populated by a colorful cast of characters. I just wish we could have spent more time with Bartleby Donck, who was far too interesting to be given so little page time.

So while City of Orphans may not be perfect, it still makes for a wonderful foray through 19th century New York City. An easy, entertaining read. 

Byrt Grade: B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly (starred review) says:

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).”

The Forth Musketeer says:

Avi knows how to spin a convincing tale, and this book is no exception…He’s particularly adept at evoking the sounds, smells, and look of tenement life in New York, with its mix of poor immigrants from many nations. This poverty contrasts with the swank brand-new Waldorf Astoria, where Maks winds up working under cover to try to clear his sister’s name…City of Orphans is definitely worth reading, and will be enjoyed by young people who like a historical mystery, but it would not be one of my favorites among Avi’s works.

Kirkus Reviews says:

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!

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