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In 1856, Mrs. Kelly, a young widow who is unable to provide for her children, makes the ultimate sacrifice: She sends Frances Mary, Mike, Megan, Danny, Peg, and Petey to the West on the Orphan Train, hoping that they will be adopted by families who can give them what she cannot.

The first book in The Orphan Train Adventures, this historically accurate saga follows the adventures o the six Kelly children who are sent out west on the Orphan Train by their impoverished mother in hope that they will find better live. Frances Mary, the eldest of the Kelly children, shepherds her siblings through the Orphan Train trip and struggles to find them good homes. Frances Mary and Petey are adopted by the Cummingses and find themselves involved in the Underground Railroad movement.


Joan Lowery Nixon is the author of more than 90 books for young readers. The only four-time recipient of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for the Best Juvenile Mystery, Nixon knows what interests readers and delivers it to them without fail. A native Californian and a transplanted Texan, Nixon lives in Houston, where she is hard at work writing more books for her legions of fans.


Pre-Reading Activity
The Orphan Train Adventures are set in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Display a map of the United States and trace the route of the Orphan Train.

The Kelly children come from New York. What attitudes toward slavery might we expect from them? In the books, the children are sent to Missouri. What attitudes might they encounter that are different from their own?

Thematic Connections

The Orphan Train Heritage Society was established to assist the thousands of men and women who came West on the Orphan Train in locating members of their families. Ask a representative of the Orphan Train Heritage Society to speak to the class. Before the visit, have students brainstorm questions to ask the speaker.

Throughout all the novels in The Orphan Train Adventures series the Kelly children experience struggles. Some struggles are unique to the historical period in which the books are set while others are struggles that children of today also face. Discuss which struggles cross time and which are bound to the Civil War era.

Letters among the main characters play an essential role in each novel. Though the reader never sees the actual contents of these letters, the contents are conveyed through the main character. Have students write a letter which could have been sent by one of the Kelly children to another.

Have students locate passages in the books that summarize a character’s convictions. Let them debate whether the characters stand firm or waiver in their convictions. Here are some examples of such statements readers might find:

"Every man has a past. …What counts is his future." (Caught in the Act p. 31)

"Part of being a woman is making decisions and accepting responsibility for them, whether they’re right or wrong." (Keeping Secrets p. 156)

Throughout the series, students meet characters who are either victims of discrimination, the discriminators themselves, or against discrimination. For example, there are characters who are made to feel they are outcasts because they come from another country and characters who treat people differently because of the amount of money they have. There are characters who support slavery and those who work to stop it. Discuss these characters and situations in a themed unit on discrimination.Family and Relationships — The children in The Orphan Train Adventures are siblings who work hard to stay close, even as they are sent far from each other. As they are placed in new families–some good, others bad–each child learns that what makes one a member of a family is not sharing the same last name but rather caring for one another. The importance of family makes this series a must read for a unit on family relationships.

Making Choices
Have students discuss the difficult decisions the Kelly children make. In A Family Apart, Mike steals in order to provide food for his family. Is he right to do so? Who else in this story knowingly breaks a law? Is one person more guilty than another? Mike knowingly steals again in A Dangerous Promise. Are these acts crimes? In another book, Mary Frances had the opportunity to work directly against slavery as she assisted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad route. Was she breaking the law? Let students debate whether or not these people should have been punished. Is it ever right to break a law? If so, then what good are laws?

The Orphan Train Adventures are as full of mystery as they are of adventure. For example, in Caught in the Act, Mike believes his foster parents, the Friedrichs, are hiding something, and he must uncover what it is. In In the Face of Danger, Megan must discover the real meaning behind the gypsy’s curse. In Keeping Secrets, Peg must find out if her new friend Violet is a Confederate spy. The mystery in each of these books makes this series a natural tie-in for any unit that has students thinking about mysteries.

The concept of "sacrifice" is developed throughout The Orphan Train Adventures. Let students look for specific places in A Family Apart where the word is used and find events where sacrifices are made. What do students learn about sacrifices from these books? Have students discuss how the willingness to make sacrifices is a part of accepting responsibility.

Interdisciplinary Connections

The train trip West was a harrowing one for the Kelly children, who had never before been out of their New York City neighborhood. Have students construct a three-dimensional relief map of the train’s route across the United States. Discuss the geographical changes the Kelly children encountered as they made their way West.

Several historical figures appear within the pages of these novels. Some of the most important historical figures are Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill Cody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Quantrill. Have the students use a reference source to find out more information about each person. Ask them to discuss why the author included them in the novel.

These books take place during the Civil War. Have students create a time line of the major events preceding, during, and immediately following the Civil War.

Some people say history repeats itself. Others say history doesn’t repeat itself, people do. Have students identify events in these books that have occurred at other times in history. Discuss whether they are also occurring now, and predict if they will occur in the future. Discuss wars from the past, as well as present wars, and hypothesize if war will occur in the future. Have students discuss mail-order brides and how men found wives at other times in history. These novels are chock full of events to consider, including slavery, secession, abolition, underground railroads, and orphan trains.

Science (Health)
Let students review the books looking for passages that discuss illnesses and the treatments for them, noticing how different the treatments were then compared to now. Generally, the treatments were based on home remedies that used herbs and other plants. Research what scientists and doctors of today have to say about those kinds of cures. Do any cultures today still depend on home remedies?

Vocabulary/Use of Language

Joan Lowery Nixon uses words and phrases in The Orphan Train Adventures that were common in the 1800s but are less common today. As students read the books, have them note those words and phrases, and share their examples in small groups. They should decide what the words/phrases mean, discover how (or if) they are used today, and–for fun–hypothesize what the words or phrases might mean in the future. Here are some: In In the Face of Danger, Emma offers to get mustard seed to make a "poultice" (p. 78) and Megan checks to see if there are plenty of "cow chips" and if the "crock" is filled before she begins cooking (p. 118). In Caught in the Act, Mike angrily refers to Gunter as "a stinking barrel of tallow" (p. 33). In A Place to Belong, Danny holds on to his "hard-earned coppers" (p. 3). In Keeping Secrets, Peg remembers seeing "painted ladies" (p. 126).

Teaching Ideas prepared by Teri Lesene, Ph.D., and G. Kylene Beers, Ph.D. Lesene teaches at Sam Houston State University. Beers teaches at several Houston area universities.


Review Highlights for The Orphan Train Adventures

A Family Apart
"As close to perfect a book….The plot is rational and well-paced; the characters are real and believable; the time setting is important in U.S. history; and the values all that anyone can ask for."

In the Face of Danger
"This exciting and touching novel projects an aura of historical reality."
–School Library Journal

A Dangerous Promise
"Her characters are finely drawn and multifaceted, the plot is lively, and the details are well chosen. This is history come to life."
–School Library Journal

Keeping Secrets
"The tension and danger are palpable. . .readers won’t be able to put this one down, as the suspense builds steadily to a dramatic but startling conclusion that may require a hanky or two."


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