circus

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

All the Fun of the Fair, and Circus too

Bright and loud, brash and fun, circuses and funfairs are excellent places to set a children’s book.

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Samson the Mighty Flea! By Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed

Flea circuses started in the early 19th century, when an Italian impresario advertised an ‘extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas’.

Samson is quite possibly the most extraordinary, but also warmest and friendliest looking flea we have ever seen. He is the big star of Fleabag’s Circus and shows his prowess to the somewhat strange crowd of colourful insects by lifting such heavy items as peas and matches, as well as hoisting his colleague, Amelie. But this smallest strongman dreams of being an even bigger star and sets off to make his fortune.

When Samson leaves his circus to join the big wide world, he finds out just how big it is. (Perception is everything.) When he joins The Circus of Dreams, he performs his act aloft the head of the Mighty Moustachio, to rapturous applause – deluding himself that the adulation is for him.

Combining a touching flea love story (don’t start scratching) with a message about being happy with what you have, and understanding that being a big star is all about your audience, this is a book that bursts with colour, enthusiasm and humour.

Told in rhyming verse that’s slightly reminiscent of the Ugly Bug Ball, this is a book with a heart. The story contains a plethora of insects and a zingy rhyme, as well as occasional moments of pathos.

The illustrations merge a circus with the insect world brilliantly – the insects’ antennae portrayed as bobbling dress-up hairbands, our protagonist flea wearing armbands to match his shorts, while his girlfriend Amelie wears a pink ra-ra skirt, pink glasses, and shows off her pink hair fuzz.

This is a vibrant picture book that is a joy to read aloud, and contains much within for discussion. A heart-warming tale about keeping perspective and seeing how your friends perceive you. We particularly loved the bravery of the lady flea left behind. Most tellingly, in a house fit to bursting with new picture books, this one has been declared a new favourite. A showstopper indeed. For ages 5+ years. You can buy it here.

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Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Another successful collaboration from Reeve and McIntyre, following Cakes in Space, Oliver and the Seawigs, and Pugs of the Frozen North. This one allows Reeve to go even further in his excellent world-building, fabricating a universe filled with planets, such as Funfair Moon, in which the book’s action is set, and OfficeWorld with its Water Cooler Flume Ride, opening hours 9-5 of course.

Emily is a girl engineer, who hangs out with the funfair fixers – Jinks and O’Hare – for enjoyment, and in the hope of becoming their apprentice. Jinks and O’Hare are excellent at their job, but when a safety inspector turns up, there is a horrible coincidental breakdown of rides resulting in terrible catastrophes, ranging from a fudgeplosion to a serious gravity inversion on the helter-skelter.

Emily is on the case to solve the mystery of why the rides keep breaking down, and what the strange ‘rustlers’ are doing in the funfair.

This is zany storytelling at its very best. Inventive, witty and engaging, Reeve and McIntyre work together like rhubarb and custard. There are Miss Haversham-esque dining table allusions in the ghost train, Star Wars and Alien witticisms throughout – both in text and illustration.

The observant reader will spot many hilarious incidents, and much attention to detail, from the illustrations of a mermaid with coffee cup and mobile phone to the self-referential newspaper, the innovative vocabulary, and the allusions to prior books (pugs).

But even if the reader isn’t aware of the allusions, the book remains a fun, madcap caper with loads to look at, with a great adventure and a stellar example of how to let loose with the imagination. An absurd treat of a rollercoaster ride. For ages 7+ years. You can purchase this here.

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The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll

Inspired by history, Emma Carroll’s circus tale is set in the world of Victorian circuses. Another girl protagonist, this time Louie, who sells tickets at Chipchase’s circus. But she dreams of being a funambulist, training in secret before anyone else is awake.

There are other people keeping secrets though, including Mr Chipchase, and before long Louie is unravelling the mystery surrounding her absent parents, and her phenomenal talent for tightrope walking.

The structure of the book is purposefully like a show – with the first act at Chipchases, an interval in which Louis traverses the Atlantic, and the second act in which she defies death and crosses Niagara on a tightrope (inspired by the true story of Jean-Francois Gravelet, known as Blondin’ for his blonde hair).

Enthralling and riveting for its circus content, Carroll draws on a number of well-played tropes to establish her novel, from a red-haired extrovert orphan protagonist searching for a mother, to a Titanic-esque style sea-crossing (without the iceberg crash), and maltreatment of children/employees. However, Carroll has drawn from history, and the truth behind the stories she tells of daring stunts with wheelbarrows and all manner of props on a tight-rope make this story for children absolutely breath-taking.

It’s a gripping adventure mystery, mainly due to Carroll’s excellently tight plotting and her winning style, which carries the reader along with ease and grace. Bound up within the story is the determination of the heroine, and the life lessons of trust and bravery – two key skills from tightrope walking that can be transferred to real life.

This is a thrilling tale of circuses and self-discovery which leaves the reader satisfied. Another testament to a good book – every child I’ve met who has read this story has loved it. For age 9+ years. Buy yours here.

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The Greatest Show of All by Jane Eagland

This rather easy yet compelling story by Jane Eagland retells the story of Twelfth Night in a dyslexia friendly print for a reading age of eight, yet with a teen audience in mind. It transposes the hidden identities, misplaced romance and fun world of Shakespeare’s play into the world of the circus.

Kitty follows her brother in running away from her family farm and joins a circus. But to work with the horses there, she has to disguise herself as a boy, which she does, successfully. Kit works with horse performer Jack and falls in love with him, but he in turn is in love with the tight-rope walker, Sarah. And Sarah is further tied into the love triangle.

With escaping lions, evil clowns, daredevil performances, this is a whirlwind of a book, but at no time too challenging to understand the plot twists, identities and emotions. Our protagonist Kitty is more than likeable – she is empathetic herself, kind and generous, and its lovely to see a story where good triumphs over bad and there’s a happy ending.

A great re-telling, perfect for its audience. Check it out here.

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Other great circus reads include Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse by Laura Wood, and The War Next Door by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. Poppy Pym is about a girl who grows up in the circus, but when she turns eleven, the circus decide to send her to a proper school. The book turns into a mystery, after an incident with an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artefacts at Poppy’s new school, but Poppy discovers she needs her circus family to help her solve the crime. The first in the series, this is a great adventure for readers aged 9+ with another feisty heroine. Buy it here.

Phil Earle’s book, The War Next Door, is the third in his series about Storey Street. The plot pivots on a turf war over a houseless patch of land in the middle of a row of terraces. The tussle over space and ownership and the reaction to the circus family who pitch up one day holds a dark side that contrasts nicely with this series’ generally upbeat and funny tone and self-referential author jokes. As in the first in the series, Demolition Dad, in which the father’s tendency to depression was tested, this too provides a good story with a deeper moral angle behind it, in this case, how one treats neighbours and ‘outsiders’. The circus performers are particularly brought to life by talented illustrator Sara Ogilvie. You can buy it here.