I’m not exactly sure when my fascination with the circus started. I never went as a child; I was more concerned with getting on Broadway than running away with Ringling. Still, over the past several years I’ve been drawn to the circus aesthetic—its daring, inherent otherness. I can pore over vintage posters, sideshow banners, and cabinet cards for hours. I’ve read histories and novels. I’ve watched documentaries and horror movies. I may be the only avid fan of the failed HBO series Carnivale—how was it supposed to end?!
The circus theme…holds the potential
for magic, danger, or the grotesque—
and if you’re lucky, all three.
I love it all. And, honestly, I don’t think I’m alone. The circus theme cycles in and out of vogue, but it’s one that holds the potential for magic, danger, or the grotesque—and if you’re lucky, all three.
The one aspect of circuses that doesn’t give me a thrill is its use of animals. During my documentary viewings, I’ve seen animals treated with the utmost care, so this is not a blanket condemnation; but I have also watched heartbreaking ones. If you think An Apology to Elephants and Dumbo might make a nice Sunday afternoon double-feature, you are about to be destroyed!
For that reason, the list below, which I’ve geared primarily towards kids and teens, does not include books like Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. It contains books with a circus or sideshow spirit. So step right up, ladies and gentlemen, as I present (roughly ordered by audience age):
Julia’s Big-Top 10
Olivia Saves the Circus, by Ian Falconer (PreS–Gr. 1)
Olivia saves the circus.
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (PreS–Gr. 2)
This wordless picture book has quite a story to tell after a baby clown falls off his train into a friendly farmer’s field.
The Show Must Go On!, By Kate Klise (Gr. 3–5)
Traveling circus owner Sir Sidney’s new lion tamer causes mayhem when he puts making money above the well-being of the performers and talking animals.
Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley (Gr. 4–7)
Micah Tuttle pursues his dying grandfather’s stories of a magic circus—and with them the hope of finding someone there who can save his grandfather’s life. (This one is out in June, so be on the lookout!)
The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel (Gr. 4–7)
A young boy’s trip on the world’s longest train turns into a madcap race through the cars, as he tries to elude a murderer and prevent a robbery. Oh, and there’s an entire circus on board, as well.
Learning the Ropes, by Monique Polak (Gr. 6–9)
A quick read about 15-year-old aerialist’s experience at a highly competitive circus camp in Montreal. (This is due out in May!)
Wonder Show, by Hannah Barnaby (Gr. 7–10)
After Portia Remini runs away from McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, she gets a job with a traveling sideshow (and circus), which she hopes will offer her protection and a chance to search for her missing father.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (Gr. 8–11)
This book is one of my favorites and one with a strong sideshow spirit, even though an actual sideshow doesn’t make an appearance until book two, Hollow City. It’s a monster story, a time-traveling WWII story, and a kids-with-unusual-abilities story. Riggs also makes excellent use of freaky, found photos, which bear all the hallmarks of a good oddities display.
P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman, by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr, et. all (Gr. 4 & Up)
An outstanding picture book biography of one circus history’s greatest figures, complete with old ads and pictures of many of his curiosities. Sadly, this book is now out of print, but check out The Great and Only Barnum, by Candice Fleming, if you can’t get your hands on this one.
The Circus Book: 1870s-1950s, by Dominique Jando and Linda Granfield (Adult)
Published by Taschen in 2010, this oversized volume is a work of art and easily the heaviest book I own. Gorgeous full-page posters, ads, and photos—including some taken by Stanley Kubrick—mingle with text (printed in English, French, and German) to give a spectacular look at the American circus tradition.
So, there you have it! I could easily keep going, but these books should get you started no matter what your age.