cover image The King of Mulberry Street

The King of Mulberry Street

Donna Jo Napoli, . . Random/Lamb, $15.95 (246pp) ISBN 978-0-385-74653-3

Napoli (Stones in Water ) carefully lays out the dramatic growth of nine-year-old narrator Beniamino, from his last day in Naples, Italy, to his premature graduation into adulthood on the tough streets of New York City's Five Points neighborhood in 1891. Readers must be patient in the beginning, as the boy makes his way through the crowded alleyways of Naples, sidestepping scugnizzi ("urchins, the poorest of the poor") notorious for stealing, and making money where he can (doing errands for the nuns). The author hints at how the boy's mother gets him new shoes and smuggles him, alone, onto a ship bound for America, but wisely leaves it to older readers to discern (even the hero, by book's end, admits, "I knew she'd sacrificed to do it, maybe in ways that were awful"). All of the groundwork pays off, however, as the boy's newly acquired skills serve him well, surviving on the streets and avoiding the horrific padrone system (Italians in America paid for children to cross the Atlantic and "work off" their debt, like slaves), and the pace picks up. Napoli credibly expands the narrator's awareness, as he begins to recognize some of the unspeakable cruelties going on around him yet manages to extend kindnesses to others (earning him the nickname "the king of Mulberry Street"), and to find his own makeshift family in this new world. This tale may well offer readers insight into how their own families found their way here—or send them in search of those stories. Ages 8-12. (Oct.)