The streets of 1893 New York are crowded and filthy. For thirteen-year-old newsboy Maks Geless, they are also dangerous. Bruno, leader of the awful Plug Ugly Gang, has set his sights on Maks and orders his boys to track him down. Suddenly Maks finds himself on the run, doing all he can to evade the gang, with only his new friend Willa by his side. And that’s just the start of Mak’s troubles. His sister, Emma, has been arrested and imprisoned for stealing a watch from the glamorous new Waldorf Hotel. Maks knows she didn’t do it—but will he be able to prove it in time?
This is a riveting, quickly paced adventure set against a backdrop alive with the sights and sounds of tenement New York.
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 23, 1937
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:University of Wisconsin; M.A. in Library Science from Columbia University, 1964
Read an Excerpt
Amazing things happen.
Look at someone on the street and you might never see that person again—ever. Then you bump into a stranger and your whole life changes—forever. See what I’m saying? It’s all ’bout them words: “luck,” “chance,” “coincidence,” “accident,” “quirk,” “miracle,” plus a lot of words I’m guessing I don’t even know.
But the thing is, I got a story that could use all them words. ’Bout a kid by the name of Maks Geless. That’s Maks, with a k. M-a-k-s.
Now, this Maks, he’s regular height for a thirteen-year-old, ruddy-faced, shaggy brown hair, always wearing a cloth cap, canvas jacket, and trousers, plus decent boots. He’s a newsboy—what they call a “newsie.” So he’s holding up a copy of the New York City newspaper The World,and he’s shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all ’bout it! ‘Murder at the Waldorf. Terrible Struggle with a Crazy Man! Two Men Killed!’ Read it in The World! The world’s greatest newspaper. Just two cents!”
Now, not everything gets into the papers, right? But see, the only one who knows what really happened up at the Waldorf is . . . Maks.
You’re thinking, how could this kid—this newsie—know?
I’ll tell you.
This story starts on Monday, October 9, 1893. That’s five days before the day of that headline you just heard. It’s early evening, the night getting nippy. Electric streetlamps just starting to glow. In other words, the long workday is winking.
Not for Maks. He’s still on his regular corner, Hester Street and the Bowery. Been peddling The World for five hours and has sold thirty-nine papers. Sell one more and he’ll have bailed his whole bundle. Do that and he’ll have eighty cents in his pocket.
Now listen hard, ’cause this is important.
In 1893 newsies buy their papers and then sell ’em. So next day’s bundle is gonna cost Maks seventy-two cents. Then he sells ’em for two cents each. Means, for his five hours’ work, he’ll earn a whole eight cents. Not much, you say? Hey, these days, six cents buys you a can of pork and beans, enough eats for a day, which is more than some people gets.
You’re probably thinking, eight pennies—that ain’t hardly worth working all them hours. But this is 1893. These are hard times. Factories closing. Workers laid off. Not many jobs. Housing not easy to find. Fact, people are calling these days the “Great Panic of 1893.” And the thing is, Maks’s family’s rent is due this week. Fifteen bucks! For them, that’s huge.
All I’m saying is, Maks’s family needs him to earn his share, which is—you guessed it—eight cents a day.
Now, most days when Maks finishes selling his papers, he likes staying in the neighborhood to see how his newsie pals have done. Don’t forget, this is New York City. The Lower East Side. Something always happening.
This night all Maks wants to do is to get home and eat. No surprise; he’s hungry twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week. And last time he ate was breakfast—a roll and a bowl of coffee-milk.
So Maks holds up his last newspaper and gives it his best bark: “Extra! Extra! Read all ’bout it! ‘Joe Gorker, Political Boss, Accused of Stealing Millions from City! Trial Date Set! Others Arrested!’ Read it in The World! World’s greatest newspaper. Just two cents! Only two cents!”
Sure, sometimes crying headlines, Maks gets to head doodling that someday he’ll be in the paper for doing something great, like maybe making a flying machine. So The World would pop his picture on its first page, like this here mug Joe Gorker. Then Maks reminds himself that his job is selling the news, not being it. Besides, The World is always laying down lines ’bout Joe Gorker, screaming that the guy is a grifter-grafter so crooked that he could pass for a pretzel.
Anyway, Maks’s shout works ’cause next moment, a fancy gent—top hat, handlebar mustache, starched white collar, what some people call a “swell stiff” —wags a finger at him.
Maks runs over.
The guy shows a nickel. “Got change, kid?”
“Sorry, sir. No, sir.”
I know: Maks may be my hero, but he ain’t no saint. Like I told you, for him, pennies are big. Needs all he can get.
“Fine,” says the swell. “Keep the change.”
“Thank you, sir!” Maks says as he slings his last sheet to this guy.
The guy walks off, reading the headlines.
Maks, telling himself his day is done, pops the nickel into his pocket. Except no sooner does he do that than who does he see?
He sees Bruno.
This Bruno is one serious nasty fella. Taller than Maks by a head, his face is sprinkled with peach fuzz, greasy red hair flopping over his eyes, one of which is squinty, and on his head he’s got a tipped-back brown derby, which makes his ears stick out like cute cauliflowers.
But the thing is, Bruno may be only seventeen years old, but he’s head of the Plug Ugly Gang. Lately, Bruno and his gang have been slamming World newsies, beating ’em up, stealing their money, burning their papers.
So Maks knows if Bruno is giving him the eye, things gonna be bad. And it’s not just ’bout being robbed. If Maks loses his money, he ain’t gonna be able to buy papers for next day. No papers, no more money and the family rent don’t get paid. In other words, no choice. Maks has to get home with his money.
Trouble is, his home is a three-room tenement flat over to Birmingham Street, near the East River. That’s fifteen big blocks away, which, right now, feels as far as the North Pole.
In other words, if Maks wants to keep his money, he’s gonna have to either outrun that Plug Ugly or fight him.
Don’t know ’bout you, but Maks would rather run.
© 2011 Avi Wortis
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide for
City of Orphans
About the Book
The streets of New York in 1893 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 World 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 New York tenements, Maks, as boy detective, must confront a world teeming with wealth and crime, while struggling against powerful forces threatening new immigrants and the fabric of family love.
1. Avi describes the streets on the Lower East Side of New York, Willa’s alley, Mak’s tenement, the Tombs, and the apartment of Donck, the private detective, using words that include all the senses. What are the sights, sounds, and smells of each? Using each location, explain how they are all examples of “hard times”?
2. What are newsies? What is life like for a street rat? How and why do Bruno and the Plug Ugly Gang terrorize only the newsies who peddle the World?
3. How is each member of Maks’s family expected to help support the family? How does Willa become a member of this family?
4. Who is Bartleby Donck and what is his life like? How is he able to help Maks and Willa? Give all the reasons he decides to help them.
5. Explain the circumstances of Emma’s arrest. How was she cleared?
6. Maks is disappointed with the inaction of his parents in helping his sister, Emma. Why don’t they help? Why does Maks take on this problem? How is Maks’s life different from that of his parents? Is Maks afraid of anything?
7. When Bartleby Donck meets Maks and Willa in Chapter 33 he comments that justice is blind because “No money. No justice.” Does this story prove or disprove this statement?
8. Willa doesn’t have many memories of her father but she does say, “I don’t think he was a good man.” Explain all the ways Mr. Brunswick is not a good man.
9. Avi’s first line in City of Orphans is “Amazing things happen.” How is this a story of luck, chance, coincidence, accidents, quirks, and miracles?
10. There are many stories in City of Orphans. How does each character’s story end?
Beyond the Text
1. Research wasting disease. How are the characters in this story all touched by this disease?
2. This story is told in present tense by an omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator. Find examples of this folksy style told in first person. What effect does this style of writing have on the story and on how the reader gets to know the characters and follows the action?
3. Read another historical fiction book by Avi. How does it compare to City of Orphans?
4. Avi writes a blog, a treasury of an accomplished writer’s thinking and writing. Follow Avi’s blog at avi-writer.com/blog/.
5. Write a book review of this story. Then compare it to a professional review of City of Orphans on Avi’s website. Find three ways you could improve your own review writing.
6. The historic Waldorf was a very famous example of New York architecture. Visit nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON017.htm and discover the history of this hotel.
7. The tenement at 97 Orchard St. on the Lower East Side was home to thousands of immigrants at the turn of the century. It has been restored as a living history of the time of City of Orphans. Walk through a portal to the past.
Tenement Museum site: tenement.org
Tenement Museum video walk-through on youtube.com (3 minutes):
8. Jacob Riis, a famous photographer at the turn of the twentieth century, documented tenement living and displayed it for the world to see. What can be learned from his photographs found at this site? youtube.com/watch?v=SZl4KXsaKVE
9. There are two different worlds in City of Orphans: the tenement world and the Waldorf Hotel world. Compare and contrast the two.
Common Core Standards
R.CCR.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
R.CCR.2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
R.CCR.3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
R.CCR.4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
R.CCR.5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
R.CCR.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
R.CCR.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
W.CCR.4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
W.CCR.5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
W.CCR.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
Guide written by Jan McDonald of Rocky Mountain Readers
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
This guide was written to align with the Common Core State Standards (www.corestandards.org).