Orphan Eleven

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Orphans seek home in the circus in riveting page-turner.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in 1939, Orphan Eleven has a lot of detail about life in that era, especially in the circus. A glossary provides definitions for common circus terms like "candy butcher" (concession stand worker) and "red-lighting" (leaving a misbehaving worker behind when the train pulls out of the station). It also offers a window on some real abuse, aka "research," inflicted on children at the time in the name of science.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of courage, determination, friendship, and family, all of which often come to the fore in ways that cause vulnerable, wavering kid characters to make good choices. Community, working together, teamwork, and belonging are big themes; likewise the kindness of strangers.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eleven-year-old Lucy is determined to escape her abusers and find her lost sister, Dilly. Lucy is smart, brave, kindhearted, and really scared. Dilly, unbeknownst to Lucy, is trying desperately to find Lucy and reunite with her -- and being stonewalled by the matron of the orphanage. But she doesn't give up. Among Lucy's fellow orphans, Nico is her age and starts to see that friendship and the circus are better than helping a man who cheats at cards. Eugene is older, kind, and protective. His half-sister, Doris, is mean and untrustworthy, but occasionally does something unexpected and good. The adults at the circus have many quirks but are basically kind and welcoming to the kids, while also making them step up and be responsible. And random strangers often come through at just the right moment. There are also many adult villains posing a constant threat, from the stepfather who dumps Lucy at the orphanage and vanishes to the abusive orphanage staff and university "researchers" who victimize her. 


Essential to the plot is the "scientific" experiment Lucy's fleeing, which echoes one that actually took place in real life at the time. An author's note/afterword delves into the history of a study that subjected people who spoke well to constant verbal abuse to make them stutterers; the study was lucrative for the keepers and experimenters and life-warping for the victims. Kids are locked up, underfed, and ill-treated at the orphanage. When they escape, goons are sent to get one of them back. A tween is locked in an attic. Against that background, dealing with circus hazards like wild animals and a brief stint as a knife-thrower's "target girl" are minor issues compared with the fear of not being allowed to stay.


Characters tease one 11-year-old for being "smitten" with another. Some circus folks are married to each other and there are glimmers of attraction between others. Lucy's life went off the rails when her mother fell in love with and married a man who'd lied about being able to support them (along with everything else), and Lucy is determined never to get into a state of mind that leads to so much trouble. Two minor characters, one with a husband in the military, are pregnant.


Occasional references to animal poop and pee-soaked laundry.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarettes and the smell of tobacco are part of Depression-era circus life.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Orphan Eleven, by Newbery Honor recipient Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts), is a historical novel set in 1939, about orphans who run off and find home and family in the circus. It's also about a horrific "speech" experiment done on children that mirrors a real-life Depression-era one. Traumatized by the experiment, one of the the runaways, main character Lucy, refuses to speak at all. The villainous keepers from the orphanage will stop at nothing to get her back. She finds refuge in a traveling circus wintering nearby, where she's so desperate to stay that she becomes the terrified "target girl" for a knife-thrower. Through all this, her long-lost older sister, Dilly, is trying desperately to find her, and being stonewalled by the matron of the orphanage. In short, there's a lot of harrowing, perilous stuff facing the main characters and the reader. But the kids find kindness and a home -- as well as responsibility and self-respect -- at the circus, with life-changing results. In the process, some of the orphans also learn better ways, like the 11-year-old who begins to realize that honest work might be better than cheating at cards.

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What's the story?

It's 1939, and 11-year-old Lucy Sauvé, aka ORPHAN ELEVEN, has been at the Home for Friendless Children since she was 6, her mother was dying, and her good-for-nothing stepfather left her there. A happy kid who sang and danced when she arrived, she now won't say anything -- the result of mysterious "lessons" for which she's been singled out. She longs to find her older sister, Dilly, but in vain. Then one day, she sees her chance and runs. So do three other kids. They make it to Saachi’s Circus Spectacular, nearby in its winter quarters, where they hope to prove themselves and be taken in as apprentices. Lucy sees the circus' upcoming stop in Chicago as her best chance to find Dilly, who was last seen there. Dilly, meanwhile, is just as anxious to find Lucy, and, as a series of letters reveals, is being lied to by the matron of the orphanage to prevent this. And the matron has goons searching all over the district to get Lucy back.

Is it any good?

This riveting, uplifting page-turner about a girl who flees a cruel orphanage and finds home and family in a traveling circus has strong messages of courage, friendship, and determination. The odds seem heavily stacked against Orphan Eleven, who was traumatized into silence by "lessons" at the Home for Friendless Children. But as she soon discovers, the world isn't all villains -- there are people out there who will go to a lot of trouble to help one another, and you.

"'Seriously, Lucy, Saachi's is its own kind of special,' Buck said. 'A home for those of us don't fit anywhere else.'

"Lucy smiled.

"'What do you think, boys, is she a keeper?'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the circus as a place people (especially kids) run off to when things just aren't working out for them in regular life. How does that theme play out in Orphan Eleven -- and how is it treated in other circus tales you know?

  • What's fun about reading or watching stories set in other time periods? What are some of your favorites? 

  • In 1933, Lucy and Dilly's mother died of tuberculosis. Today, she could be treated and probably cured. What other diseases used to be a much more serious, widespread problem than they are today? How did people get them under control?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical fiction and friendship tales

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