Avi’s City of Orphans is a stellar transport back to the New York City of 1893, where an immigrant family, and in particular young Maks, a “newsie,” suffers the slings and arrows of misfortune. It is a story chockablock with “heroic deeds, narrow escapes, dastardly villains, amazing coincidences and a family rich in love and hope...all part of an intricate and endlessly entertaining adventure,” we wrote in a starred review.
Avi has shaped characters of terrific sympathy and utter despicableness and provided the rare, homey opportunity to explore the city’s most notorious prison—the Tombs—at its most dismal. Here he tells us about the Lower East Side, then and now, print journalism and shaping a narrative voice.
Find more great books exploring the past among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
You live in Colorado, but your grasp of New York City’s Lower East Side—and in the late 19th century at that—is very sure. Have you ever lived there?
I was born and raised in New York City. After college I lived in a fifth-floor walk-up, two-room tenement apartment in the Lower East Side—with a bathtub in what was called the kitchen. Rent: $35 a month, which I could barely afford.
Aside from that experience, there are many published memoirs from the time, plus histories and studies of the area. There are Jacob Riis’ accounts and photographs of the place and period. There is the marvelous Tenement Museum. (Go!) Beyond that, the Lower East Side is still there, with much of the same architecture and ambiance.
Your main character, Maks, lives on Birmingham Street, but I was defeated finding Birmingham Street on the Lower East Side. Bialystoker, Orchard, even an aptly named Oliver Street—no Birmingham. How come?
Birmingham Street did exist, you can find it on old maps, but it has gone the way of much of old New York—in this case, buried by the modern approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Newspapers were a lifeblood of the city in your book, but they, too, feel on the brink of disappearing. What do you think has been lost by the decline of the print press?
The old adage is that good journalism makes important facts interesting. The modern mode of communication seems determined to make unimportant facts entertaining. My impression of Internet news, the social network, is that it is a world of shared hiccups, nervous tics and déjà vu.
There is nothing inherently meaningful in this kind of communication. It lacks subtlety, has little room for wit [or] linguistic grace and almost no space for complex thought. All of which means, in my view, it is soulless communication. Yet, sound bites, like snake bites, often carry venom. Though it often fails, the print press can be vastly richer. It has the capacity to be local, independent, a vital public defender, a means of educating the citizenry, without which, democracy fails.
Late 19th-century New York City—or at least Manhattan—was profoundly driven by class. Today it may even be more so. What do you hope your readers will take away from your sharp delineation of haves and have-nots?
Poverty and wealth is a constant in all history. When it exists side by side, it has a mutual influence and is a prime molder of the human spirit. While we often look the other way, the [United States] is no exception.
As I studied this period of time—the end of the 19th century—I found wonderful stories of immigrant lives, rich in family lore. Just to live and survive was a triumph. It seemed worthwhile to try to capture that moment, to write about a poor family that was full of love, which extended that love to others. By setting the story in a world of poverty, the contrasting wealth, I hope, deepens and makes real their rich drama.
The staccato language in your story has the jump and complexity of bebop. Where did the idea of that style come from?
I have a great love of the sentence, the crafted paragraph, the quick twist and, your word, jump of language. It’s fun to read and can drive a story at a terrific pace. It is the illuminating lightning midst the darker thundering of narrative. City of Orphans, I thought, needed an external voice to be, explain and illustrate, so to speak, the world of 1893. The simplest justification for the voice is to quote the French novelist Flaubert, who once said, “Style is a way of seeing.”