the circus is coming to town!…five from under the big top

Flickr_-_…trialsanderrors_-_Terrific_flights_over_ponderous_elephants,_poster_for_Forepaugh_^_Sells_Brothers,_ca._1899Circuses are changing up their acts today. The elephants and bears thank them for that. Yet storybook circuses maintain all the exotic showmanship and old-fashioned atmosphere…

…decked-out elephants, red-nosed clowns, and little dogs blasting out of cannons. No harm ever comes to them. Just jollyness.


I wonder a bit why circus stories still interest kids. Seems so by-gone to me. Yet one of the most talked-about picture books from 2014 revolves around a circus train, so…there you go. Just in time for you to put on your own neighborhood circus this summer…

the farmer and the clown cover imageThe Farmer and the Clown, a wordless book by Marla Frazee
published in 2014 by Beach Lane Books

Here’s the book so many thought would garner a Caldecott last year, and with Marla Frazee’s name on it, we know we’re in for some gorgeous artwork.

It’s set in the old days of coal-fired steam engines, on a dusky plain in the middle-of-nowhere America. A white-bearded farmer is the lone figure on this lonesome stretch of land, bending his back to his chores. You can hear the very solitude in the opening scene, just the wind, the cawing of a few crows, and the scratch-scratch of hay against his iron pitchfork.

Then, chuffing along, comes a merry circus train. Black, puffing locomotive. Coal tender. Jolly red, yellow, and blue cars loaded with clowns and wild beasts. What a sight for that lonely farmer.

the farmer and the clown illustration marla frazee

Suddenly — boop! The farmer sees something flying off the train! When he goes to inspect, he finds a wee, baby clown. Now what to do? He’s just an old coot who knows nothing about taking care of babies!

The rest of the story unpacks the sweet relationship that blossoms as this old farmer fosters that baby clown. And, poignantly, what happens when the little fellow’s circus family returns to fetch him.


the farmer and the clown illustration2 marla frazeeIt’s a dear story full of thoughts about family, companionship, and sacrificial love, for ages 2 or 3 and up.

the circus baby cover imageThe Circus Baby, written and illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham
published in 1950 by Macmillan Publishing Co.

The Petershams were a brilliant, husband-and-wife, team, some of the pioneers in children’s picture books beginning in the 1920s. They created over 100 books, and if you’ve never had a taste of

Maud and Miska Petersham

Maud and Miska Petersham

their fabulous work, you really should hunt down some of their titles. I have no idea why they are not being reissued today.

This little gem is about a Mother Elephant and her baby who live with a circus.

She is a doting mama. Very proud of her baby. She is also the great friend of Zombie the clown (no relation to today’s zombies!) and his family.

Mother Elephant notices that the clowns eat their meals in a most civilized fashion at a table, sitting on chairs, using forks and spoons, and decides her baby ought to learn the same sort of manners.

the circus baby illustration maud and miska petersham

While the clowns are out of their tent one day, Mother and Junior give it a try. And as you can imagine — it does not go so well!

One of our favorites from when my kids were tiny. Find it if you can to enjoy with your little peanuts, ages 2 and up.

wolf won't bite cover imageWolf Won’t Bite!, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
first U.S. edition published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Children

Emily Gravett is a humor machine. Open her books, fasten your seatbelts,  and prepare to be Entertained!

This story features our old friends, three small pigs and one large, toothy wolf. However — this time the pigs are in charge.

They’ve caught this rather scraggly-and-abashed wolf, and created a circus act to Amaze and Delight you.

wolf won't bite illustration emily gravett

See how brave they are! See how they’ve tamed him. No matter what they do — Wolf Won’t Bite!!

Or will he?

Sheer, outstanding fun, pictures gushing with personality and energy. A riot to share with ages 2 or 3 and up.

the circus ship cover imageThe Circus Ship, written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
published in 2009 by Candlewick

Not a circus train. A circus ship!

This side-wheeler is churning through some pea-soup fog off the coast of Maine, headed for Boston. Proud pennant fluttering. Exotic animals lining the ship’s rails.

The ship’s captain is all for dropping anchor in such bad weather, but the Nasty Brute of a Circus Boss says the show in Boston must go on.

And sure enough — Crash! Splinter!

the circus ship illustration chris van dusen

Never fear. No animals were harmed in the making of this story. But the folks on this rocky Maine isle are in for a Big Surprise when they wake up to monkeys in the cherry trees and lions lolling on the lawns!

It’s a rollicking adventure, written in boisterous rhyme, and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen’s eye-popping-bright, exaggerated, artwork.  Extremely appealing to children ages 4 or 5 and up. An Author’s Note details a real shipwreck involving exotic animals which did not end well. Best read it yourself before you decide whether to share it with the kids!

extraordinary jane cover imageExtraordinary Jane, written and illustrated by Hannah E. Harrison
published in 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers

Jane is the cute little dog you see, seated just a snitch apart from the rest of the razzamatazz circus animals. Darling. But quite ordinary.

Jane is surrounded by an extraordinary world of circus performers. Her mother is an elegant bareback rider. Her father is the strongman. A whole litter of brothers routinely blast out of cannons, while her pink-tutued sisters perform stunning acrobatic feats.

extraordinary jane illustration hannah e. harrison

But Jane is just Jane.

When she plucks up her courage and tries to join in…disaster strikes.

Does Jane have any extraordinary talent? And if not — then what?

Hannah Harrison has written a minimal text, telling this warm story of love and acceptance in her, truly, extraordinary pictures. Her electrifyingly-bright acrylic paintings set atop loads of white space are dramatic, vivacious, detailed, immaculate. Tremendously appealing.

A sweet story to share with children ages 2 and up.