Life hasn’t been fun and games for Lucy. She used to be a happy, talkative child with a beautiful voice, but she hasn’t spoken in a long time. At the Home for Friendless Children, talking just got her into too much trouble. It will take an entire circus and the camaraderie of all its performers to help Lucy find her voice and reconnect with the one thing in her life she misses most—her little sister, Dilly.
Orphan Eleven unfolds over just a two-week period in the lives of Lucy and three other Friendless Children, but it’s an action-packed, rollicking rollercoaster that chronicles the quartet’s adventures as they escape from the oppressive Home. A series of fortunate coincidences lead them to a circus troupe, where they meet a kind soul who helps them find their true strengths, learn about themselves and bond with each other. However, their past is never far behind, so as the group moves forward together, they’re constantly looking over their shoulders.
Gennifer Choldenko, a Newbery Honor recipient for Al Capone Does My Shirts, has always been a thorough researcher, and her skill is on full display in Orphan Eleven. Lucy’s treatment at the Home is, in fact, based on an actual medical experiment conducted at an orphanage in Iowa in the late 1930s. Scientists used children as research subjects to test their hypothesis that stuttering could be induced through constant humiliation. Lucy’s efforts to work through the cruelty she has experienced are rendered with great empathy, but knowing real children were actually treated this way by adults gives the book an even deeper poignancy.
The tension and excitement of running away and the fun and fascinating daily life of a circus will keep young readers turning the pages, but it’s Lucy’s real-life backstory that makes Orphan Eleven a true and compelling triumph.