Oddfellow's Orphanage is a quick read aimed at younger chapter book readers. While not a traditional fantasy, Emily Winfield Martin incorporates fantastical elements, such as carriages drawn by trained bears, and a boy with the head of a large onion. There are frequent illustrations intermixed with the text (and drawn by the author), which help to bring these elements to life (particularly the portraits of each character).
Oddfellow's Orphanage begins as young Delia, a newly orphaned albino girl who doesn't speak, arrives at the orphanage. A series of small domestic events follow (such as Delia's recovery of a lost baby bear, and a bout of bad temper on the part of one of the other boys). The orphanage itself is highly idealized (in an entertaining contrast with most books about orphanages). The children are fed delicious food (including pancakes shaped like tiny rabbits) and are cared for by loving adults. Their rooms are given warm personal touches. And if one of the "children" is actually a hedgehog, well, this is taken in stride by everyone.
The tone of Oddfellow's Orphanage is a mix of over-the-top humor and nostalgia. Like this:
"Felix came to the orphanage after his parents were laid low by a poisoned cake that came as a gift from one of his father's business rivals. He hid in the kitchen cupboard when the ambulance came, and then lived alone (rather well) until neighbors spotted him sneaking home with a sack of groceries. When Oddfellow Bluebeard came to fetch him, the scrawny boy kicked and shouted and then promptly dissolved into a puddle of tears over the headmaster's great shoulder." (Page 40)
While I found "puddle of tears" a bit trite, I liked the mental image of the orphan just quietly living on his own until being discovered.
Oddfellow's Orphanage is not your typical early chapter book. The vocabulary is relatively advanced ("vermilion", "scattered", "rippled", etc.), and pictures have an old-fashioned feel. But there is plenty of age-appropriate wish fulfillment (a midnight adventure, a "grand picnic", a lake monster). The characterization, while not deep, is consistent, and sufficient to enable young readers to keep the various children distinct in their minds. And the illustrations are delightful.
Oddfellow's Orphanage doesn't really have a plot. It's a string of events from when Delia arrives at the orphanage one spring night up to the arrival of another orphan on New Year's Eve. There are a few small conflicts, but these are resolved VERY quickly (as when one child almost runs away with the circus, but realizes on his own that his family is at the orphanage). Most of the scenes depicted are (metaphorically speaking) rose-colored (particularly those surrounding Christmas). Like this:
"As Delia climbed into bed, she saw snow falling outside the window. She felt so cozy tucked in her bedcovers, she imagined she was a tiny girl nestled inside a warm matchbox. Delia heard the nighttime peeps of the finches and heard Ava whisper "Good night" before they all drifted off to sleep thinking of Christmas morning.
Ava dreamed she lived in a giant gingerbread house, and Delia dreamed she was small enough to ride on the back of a finch." (Page 109)
Oddfellow's Orphanage is a gingerbread house of a book, really, filled with quirky sweetness. While I personally prefer books that have more of a plot, and more conflict, I think that younger readers of quiet temperament will enjoy spending some time at Oddfellow's Orphanage.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: January 24, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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