Orphan Eleven

Random. May 2020. 320p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780385742559.
Gr 4-6–Kids fleeing a cruel orphanage to join the circus may be a familiar plot, but Choldenko ups the ante to keep things fresh. Just as 11-year-old Lucy, who is an elective mute, spots an opportunity to escape the Home for Friendless Children, she is joined by Bald Doris (whose head is shaved because of lice), her big brother Eugene, and clever Nico. In 1939, these four make their way out into the Midwest in hopes of better prospects. They believe that a circus might be the place for them, with its roving life that accepts differences and offers food and shelter. Lucy chooses not to speak because of derision and abuse from the adults in her life. The elephant act is where she wants to be, and she is able to speak to the animals. The various circus characters are realistically portrayed; some are friendly, some are focused on their work, and one, Diavolo the knife-thrower, is downright scary. Even the elephants have distinct personalities; but Choldenko doesn’t explore the animal cruelty issues that many modern readers find troubling in the circus milieu. Lucy’s sister is searching for her, which is shown through her letters both to Lucy and the orphanage. The letters provide hope, add suspense, and show readers why Lucy chooses not to speak. A glossary of circus terms is helpfully appended. Overall, the plot races with fascinating glimpses of life in the Thirties, and insight into the children’s difficult journey as they search for hope and stability.
VERDICT A well-used plot embellished in practically every aspect with strong historical underpinnings and characters who jump off the page.

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