City of Orphans Book Poster Image

City of Orphans

Newsboy and street urchin solve a mystery in 1893 New York.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The novel frankly depicts the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century New York and shows what life in a tenement would have been like. It also shows what it was like when newspapers were an important part of daily life.

Positive messages

Maks, a "newsie," bravely faces the dangers of the streets to sell enough newspapers each day to earn 8 cents, which he gives to his family. All of his family members work together to ensure their survival in a tough, sometimes confusing environment.

Positive role models

Both Maks and Willa are brave and resourceful, and Maks' parents work hard and obey the law. Although he is poor and afflicted with tuberculosis, the private investigator Bartleby Donck helps Maks seek justice for his sister, Emma, who is imprisoned at the Tombs. 


Bruno and his gang, the Plug Uglies, beat up main characters Maks, a "newsie," and his friend Willa. The newsies storm the Uglies' hidden encampment and accidentally cause a fire. Two secondary characters are killed by gunshots.

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One of the adult villains smokes cigars.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this historical novel portrays the hardships endured by immigrant families in New York City and includes an incident of fatal gun violence. The author uses an extremely colloquial style to narrate the story, choosing immediacy and verisimilitude over good grammar. Protagonist Maks and his friend Willa are often in physical danger, but the author avoids depicting graphic bloodshed. (Characters crumple to the floor without any description of their wounds.)

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What's the story?

Every day, 13-year-old Maks Geless, a \"newsie\" for The World, tries to earn the 8 cents that he can contribute to his family's meager wages. When he runs afoul of local tough Bruno and his gang, the Plug Uglies, he is saved by Willa, a resourceful girl living alone on the streets. Maks takes her to meet his family, but they are preoccupied with the arrest of Maks' older sister, Emma, imprisoned at the Tombs and accused of stealing a gold watch from a room at the Waldorf Hotel. Fearing that Emma will be sent away, Maks and Willa seek help from private investigator Bartleby Donck, who guides Maks as the boy searches for clues at the Waldorf. As Maks and Willa dodge the increasingly dangerous and unstable Bruno, they discover the truth about the missing watch and about the father who abandoned Willa after the death of her mother.

Is it any good?


CITY OF ORPHANS is a fast-paced, well-researched tale that vividly depicts the hardships of life in 1893 New York City. Maks and Willa make a compelling pair of amateur detectives, and Maks' family as a whole is presented with humor and compassion. The climax of the story depends on a good number of unlikely coincidences, but the well-orchestrated suspense mitigates the stretch in credulity.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century New York. Why did immigrants from Europe leave their countries of origin and come to America? Were their lives easier once they arrived in New York?

  • This book shows how important daily newspapers were in 19th century New York. When did newspapers stop being a daily habit for most Americans, and why? How does your family get its news? From TV? Radio? Websites?

  • Emma is sent to the Tombs, New York's infamous city jail, on fairly scant evidence. How does the system of justice in this time period differ from our own?

  • Time after time, Maks decides to keep his mother and father in the dark about his experiences on the street. Do you think this strategy is a good one? Why do you think Willa takes a different approach?

Book details

Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:September 6, 2011
Number of pages:368
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12

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Teen, 13 years old Written byViceversa March 12, 2013

Good read to pass the time

What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence