Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Wanderville Book Poster Image
Exciting adventure shows cruelty of early 1900s child labor.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Kids can compare the different ways of life and landscapes of New York City versus a prairie town such as Whitmore, Kansas, during the early 20th century. Readers also will learn that many children had to work rather than attend school before child labor laws were enacted. It's worth noting that the National Child Labor Committee, the organization that worked to end the exploitation of children in the work force, was formed in 1904, the same year in which this novel is set.

Positive Messages

Within the world of the book, the message is that we can make our own home and our own family that might be based on love and trust more than blood. In a broader worldview, the book shows how abhorrent the treatment of children was before child labor laws were enacted, highlighting the importance of protecting children, not exploiting them.

Positive Role Models & Representations

There are one or two nice grown-ups in this book but no role models among them. The best behavior is exemplified by three tweens: Frances, Jack, and Alexander, whose problem-solving skills are informed by loyalty, resourcefulness, and kindness.


It's not described graphically, but a teen boy dies in a fire. Children are beaten with a whip and a cane; the beatings take place "off-screen," but we read later that the victims have blackened eyes, one of which is almost swollen shut.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A tween boy reflects on what life was like living with his dad's excessive drinking and the toll it took on the whole family.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Wendy McClure's Wanderville creates a world divided between the innocence of childhood and the very harsh potential dangers to children who are unprotected. To save themselves, parentless children band together to try to escape a cruel fate. The book includes some very suspenseful, scary scenes and painful losses: A tween's brother dies in a fire, and another child recalls being abandoned by her mother. There also are numerous incidents of child exploitation, and a couple of child beatings -- one with a whip and one with a cane. In addition, this novel touches on some broader issues concerning child labor, and it seems to be no coincidence that the National Child Labor Committee was formed in 1904, the year this novel takes place.

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What's the story?

Wendy McClure's WANDERVILLE begins in 1904 New York City, where Jack and his older brother, Daniel, work in a textile factory and Frances and her younger brother, Harold, are residents of an orphanage. One day, a very officious woman shows up at the orphanage and divides the children into two groups: those who will go on a special outing and those who will be leaving for Kansas on a train the next day to be placed with a family. Meanwhile, after Jack's family suffers a terrible loss, his beleaguered mom and drunken dad decide to give up their remaining child. The next day, Jack, Frances, and Harold meet on the orphan train, where it quickly becomes clear to them that they are not going to nice Midwestern homes, and Frances is scared that she may be separated from Harold. The three hatch an escape plan that leads them to \"Wanderville,\" a place where they hope kids can be safe and free.

Is it any good?

Wanderville starts incredibly strong. The first 20 pages or so are as beautifully rendered as any classic children's literature about, or from, the early 20th century, as readers are introduced to the characters and conditions of their New York lives. Once those kids step on the train, the tone of the book begins to change, as the book becomes more dialogue-driven; the language and the unfolding of the story become a little more modern and a little less artful.

However, this remains an unusual, exciting story for young readers, and a great point of departure for educating children about working conditions during the 1900s and the reasons child labor laws were enacted.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Compare this book with other novels in which it's "kids vs. grown-ups." Were you surprised by how things turned out for the kids?

  • What does freedom mean to the kids of Wanderville?

  • Draw a picture of what you think Wanderville looks like.

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical stories

Themes & Topics

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