When I received notice about Wendy McClure’s new book Wanderville, I was intrigued by this description:
After reading about the Orphan Train Movement of the early 20th century (the beginning of organized foster care in America), McClure began to “envision a book where the orphan trains were just the beginning of a remarkable adventure, the kind of story where children discover how to make their own way, or even make their own world.” Characters that are imaginative, tenacious, and free-spirited are the stuff classics are made of, from Pippi Longstocking to Huckleberry Finn, and McClure’s new series will fit right in.
As it turns out, this summary was fairly accurate. Wanderville is a great adventure in the grand tradition of classic stories about children who triumph under duress. Like any hero or heroine, the kids in Wanderville must overcome tragedy and become self reliant to change their fate.
The story follows Jack, who meets Frances and her younger brother Harold on an orphan train bound for Kansas. Unsure of their future and nervous about the rumors surrounding their situation, they decide to jump off the train and make it on their own. There, in the unfamiliar woods, they meet Alexander, who managed to escape the same fate. They form a bond and create the town of “Wanderville” where any child in need of freedom is welcome. Unfortunately, events unfold that risk their newfound freedom.
I’ll stop there, but will say this book has a terrific balance of girl/boy camaraderie and each character is a hero or heroine in their own way. It was a quick read, compelling from beginning to end, and had me ready to read the next installment. My two boys read it as well and had different reactions to the book. My 11 year old, who is distinctly more attracted to science fiction and graphic novels, found the history of the orphan trains more interesting than the story itself. Far from a criticism, this spark of interest was just as valuable as my other son’s reaction. My nine year old is far more invested in stories that he can relate to. The characters in Wanderville were identifiable to him, particularly Alexander. This quirky character who was brave and imaginative and a little weird resonated with my son, and he is eager to see if the kids decide to move west in the next book.
Wanderville is targeted for 8-12 year olds, although like most chapter books, I could see reading this aloud to slightly younger kids or using it as a resource while studying this period in history. In fact, McClure includes links and downloadable extras on her website for those who want to dive deeper or educators who would like to use the book in their curriculum.
While life may have been different at the turn of the twentieth century, people for the most part have not changed. McClure does a fantastic job illustrating that, allowing kids to connect with her characters enough to care what was happening in their lives and the reality of their situation. Indeed, it is this deep caring of the past that is the catalyst to them caring about the future.