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City of Orphans Hardcover – September 6, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Written by Avi and Illustrated by Greg Ruth
(Atheneum; ISBN: 9781416971023; September 2011; Fall Catalog page 51)

“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 July 15, 2011 *STAR

City of Orphans.
Avi (Author) , Ruth, Greg (Illustrator)
Sep 2011. 368 p. Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson, hardcover, $16.99. (9781416971023).

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? Pair this riveting historical novel with Linda
Granfield’s 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life (2001), a nonfiction account of Lower
East Side tenements.

--Booklist, August 1, 2011, *STAR

City of Orphans
Avi, illus. by Greg Ruth. S&S/Atheneum/Jackson, $16.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4169-7102-3

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. Ages 10–14. (Sept.)

--Publishers Weekly, August 22, 2011, *STAR

"Narrating in the present tense, Avi attempts a colloquial, first-person “Lemme tell you how it was” style not normally found in books for middle graders. The opening, which describes Maks so vividly you feel that he’s standing right in front of you, strikes the kind of friendly note bound to draw in the average reader. 'Now, this Maks, he’s regular height for a 13-year-old, ruddy-faced, shaggy brown hair, always wearing a cloth cap, canvas jacket and trousers, plus decent boots.' In short, he’s a 'newsie'…honest-to-goodness historical mysteries are hard to find, and Avi doles out his clues carefully, allowing children the chance to feel smart if they put two and two together."

-- The New York Times Book Review

"Like the intricate inner workings of a fine gold watch from a bygone era, Avi crafts a not-to-be-missed mystery/thriller yarn featuring a colorful cast of mugs and swells and set amidst the opulence and the poverty of nineteenth century Manhattan."

Richie's Picks

About the Author

Avi is the author of more than fifty books for children and young adults, including the 2003 Newbery medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He has won two Newbery Honors and many other awards for his fiction. He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado. Visit him at

Greg Ruth has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Paradox Press, Fantagraphics Books, and more. His books for children include Our Enduring Spirit by President Barack Obama and A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade by James Preller. Greg lives and works in Western Massachusetts.

Product Details

  • Age Range: 10 - 14 years
  • Grade Level: 5 - 9
  • Lexile Measure: 570L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books; First Edition edition (September 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416971025
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416971023
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #627,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

More info at and
Avi is part of a family of writers extending back into the 19th century. Born in 1937 and raised in New York City, Avi was educated in local schools, before going to the Midwest and then back to NYC to complete his education. Starting out as a playwright--while working for many years as a librarian--he began writing books for young people when the first of his kids came along.

His first book was Things That Sometimes Happen, published in 1970, and recently reissued. Since then he has published seventy books. Winner of many awards, including the 2003 Newbery award for Crispin: the Cross of Lead (Hyperion), two Newbery Honors, two Horn Book awards, and an O'Dell award, as well as many children's choice awards, he frequently travels to schools around the country to talk to his readers.

Among his most popular books are Crispin: The Cross of Lead, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, the Poppy books, Midnight Magic, and The Fighting Ground.

In 2008 he published The Seer of Shadows (HarperCollins), A Beginning a Muddle and an End (Harcourt), Hard Gold (Hyperion) and Not Seeing is Believing, a one-act play in the collection, Acting Out (Simon and Schuster). Crispin: the End of Time, the third in the Newbery Award-winning series, was published in 2010. City of Orphans was released in 2011, receiving a number of starred reviews. Learn more at Follow Avi on Facebook,, where he shares an inside look at his writing process.

Avi lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By J.Prather TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
City of Orphans is a great read, and is perfect for upper elementary and middle grade students. Avi proves once again that he is a master storyteller as he spins the tale of Maks, a 13 year old immigrant living in New York in the 1890's. He is a character that is easy to cheer for, and I felt like I knew him pretty much from the very beginning. His dialogue, and that of his friend Willa, just leaps off the page and draws the reader fully into a story that is steeped in atmosphere. The author paints a thorough and exacting portrait of what life was like during this time, not only for adults, but also for kids. Young readers will be amazed to learn that Maks works all day selling newspapers for 8 cents a day, while Willa picks rags at the dump for 10 cents a week and lives on the street.

I wondered for quite a while where exactly this story was going. The author had created such a vibrant setting and such warm, engaging characters that I wasn't too concerned about it though, as I was just enjoying the scenery. The characters and setting are that strong.

This was a time when the police weren't always the good guys, and people were often guilty until proven innocent or until they could bribe the right person. When Maks sister is arrested for theft and taken to the Tombs, the story shifts from a period piece focusing on character, to a mystery. Maks sets out to become a boy detective and with Willa's help, they seek to discover the real perpetrator of the theft and free Maks sister from prison.

The language is colorful, the dialogue authentic, and the atmosphere simply captivating. The mystery is intriguing and will keep readers glued to the very end when they will experience an ending that is surprisingly violent.
Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By E Martin Slack on October 2, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This was an amazing story. It begins a little slow, but it quickly picks up to become the best of the best!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By angela mitchell on April 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I am a teacher and this book was recommended as a favorite by one of my 7th grade students. I decided to buy it for bedtime reading for my own boys (Grades 3 and 4). I was so interested in the story, I had to finish the entire book myself in one day. I am still reading it aloud to the boys however, and my husband now stops whatever he is doing at bedtime to hear the story as well. He is particularly interested in all of the wonderful and accurate historical descriptions of life in 1893 New York City. It is fun to talk to our children about the value of money and to discuss how difficult life was for children in this time period. A wonderful book... great for all ages!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Kindle Customer on February 26, 2013
Format: Paperback
Please understand that all my reviews focus on the interests of my middle school students. I never do a full plot synopsis in a review.

This is one of those books that is frustrating for me. From my own point of view, the book rates an easy 5 stars. Unfortunately, it has a flaw for average MS readers.

First, Avi proves his worth again at building believable, knowable, and complete characters. Even the minor characters are given pizzaz. As for setting, as a period novel, I have to use the word incredible. You get the feel for late nineteenth century NYC so completely that visualization is automatic. (The scene where Maks encounters an elevator for the first time would by itself almost make the book worth reading!) I also always appreciate a book that has strong male and female main characters. Trust me, you will fall for Maks and Willa; you will feel their pain (and joy) and be moved by Willa's transition from orphan to sister/daughter. ("But then Willa says to him, 'Where am I supposed to go now?' That time Maks can speak. 'Home,' he says. And Willa gives Maks the most grateful look that ever was grateful.") Maks is twelve and Willa just a bit younger.

Avi uses at least two narrators, both third person. When you are with Maks or Willa, you usually get the narrator thats "talks" with slang and vernacular. When with adults, the narrator becomes more standard issue. Avi is always great with voice.

The flaw in the book is the plot's pace. I love it when my students read books I've liked and we can share thoughts. With this book, it's hard for me to get kids to the part where the mystery begins and the plot quickens. It does become a page turner then, I assure you. But if I can't get them to stick with it, well, it's frustrating.

If you read and like this book, I strongly recommend Matthew Kirby's The Clockwork Three as a follow-up. It is set a bit earlier in the same century.
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By Morgan Z on March 20, 2013
Format: Paperback
The setting of "City of Orphans" is at The Waldorf hotel in New York City, 1893. The conflict is that Maks is a very poor young boy, and his sister is accused of stealing a watch. Maks's family doesn't have money to hire a lawyer to help his sister get out of jail, so Maks must find the watch, and prove who really took it. While Maks is trying to prove who took the watch, he is being bullied by Bruno, an orphan who is the leader of the Plug Uglies. Bruno wants the money Maks earns as a Newsie, but Maks needs every penny for his family. While Maks is out selling papers, Bruno tries to steal his money and an orphan, Willa, attacks Bruno and runs him off. Maks and Willa become friends and Maks invites Willa, an orphan, to live with his family. Maks pretends to work at The Waldorf as a bellboy and he finds clues to find the stolen watch.

I rate this book as 5 stars out of 5 stars, because it is full of suspense and drama. I think the book is written very well and it was easy for me to read and understand. I liked reading about a family that had to work together to survive the hard times of the 1800′s.

In my life I don't have older siblings, so reading about a family that helps each other to get through each day was really nice. I have a younger brother and I try to protect him everyday from bad things or bad people. I am the first to warn him if someone one isn't treating him right and I am always trying to keep him out of trouble. Maks was the character I really found I understood, because it seemed like he was always in charge of everybody. I am somebody who likes to be in charge and to make sure things are done correct and right. I would read this book again, because I liked it so much.
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