Today a child is most likely only to encounter a circus in their story books - real circuses are few and far between. I think the first circus I ever attended was in Woking, England in the mid-1960's when I was seven or eight years old. I can remember clearly the excitement of such a strange conglomeration of sights, smells and events. The smell of sawdust, the acrid reek of dung of animals from far away continents, the sweet smell of children's treats such as toffee apples, the musky old canvas from the big tent, etc.
There was the rigid attention to all the animal performances. Striking to young eyes were the horse acrobats; four or five women riding white horses around the ring - except they were not riding them at all but rather standing on their backs doing acrobatic tricks. There was the lion master. I don't remember his putting his head in the lion's mouth but I do remember the thrill of the lions rushing into the ring through a special cage tunnel.
Most memorable of all, and for what reason I do not know as in hindsight it does not seem all that remarkable, were the elephants. The ringmaster put them through their paces, doing all sorts of tricks such as kicking a ball, picking up tiny things with their trunks and so on. But what really stuck in my eight year old brain was the sight of the five elephants each and simultaneously sitting their massive bulks down on their respective circular platforms, with their improbably massive forelegs stuck out in the air like a little terrier sitting up and begging.
It can't have been the first time I was thrilled in that awful way as you watch the flying acrobats high above your short self, sailing through the air and being saved from a disastrous fall by the frailest of hand clasps. But it is the first time I remember being so conscious of that awful thrill. For some reason, the high-wire walkers remain most clear in my mind.
Beyond the performance in the big tent there were buskers for pitch and toss, for air rifle shooting, for all sorts of intriguing things in small tents and shelters on the grounds around the main ring. If you were not captured by the shouted pitches, you might follow all the colored strings of lights, so glorious on a beautifully dark autumn evening.
What child could remain unaffected by an event so completely disassociated with the routine of school, homework, and playing with your neighborhood friends. All these were good things of course, but did not hold a candle to that promise of a different world offered by the very idea of the circus.
And then they were gone. The circus left town, leaving only the memories and the speculation and children talking about what they had seen and incorporating ideas captured from the circus into playground games and activities.
I have had the good fortune to see a number of other circuses over the years in England, one in Sweden and a couple in the US. In some cases, they have made the attempt to evolve themselves into something more refined, perhaps "educational" or at least seemly. This evolution has culminated in such shows as Cirque de Soleil. I have greatly enjoyed the two different Cirque shows I have seen and they are well worthwhile on their own merits, but they are not a circus as a child would know the meaning of that word.
For all that a circus is the promise of adventure and escape and the experience of the exotic, it also has, even in many children's stories, a touch of the macabre, the sad, the downtrodden. The circus is one of the most two-faced standards of children's literature. For the very youngest, it is usually all about the adventure and the excitement as for Jill in the poem above. With books for older independent readers and for young adults, the dark side of a circus is more visible.
Don McLean wrote a song, very loosely based on a real event, about the circus which captures that other side, the grizzly side, the freak show aspect with which you are fascinated but embarrassed by your fascination. The Legend of Andrew McCrew is on his Homeless Brother album:
The Legend of Andrew McCrew (by Don McLean)
There was a mummy at the fair,
All crumpled in a folding chair,
The people passed, but didn't care
That the mummy was a man
So tell me if you can.
Who are you, who are you?
Where have you been,
Where are you going to?
Well Andrew McCrew must have lost his way
Cause though he died long ago
He was buried today
Now down on Nightmare Alley,
Where the shady people sway
A hobo came a-hikin' on a salty summer day.
He hopped a freight in Dallas,
And he rode it out of sight.
But on a turn he slipped,
And he lost his grip,
And he fell into the night.
Well Andrew had one leg of wood,
The other leg, was small.
But when he fell off of the train that night
He found he had no legs at all
They found him in a thicket,
And the undertaker came
And they mummified his body
For a relative to claim.
Well no one came to claim him
'Til the carnival passed through
The carnies took him to their tent,
And they decided what to do.
They dressed him in a worn-out tux,
And put him on a stand.
And millions saw the legend
Called the famous mummy man.
Well what a way to live a life,
And what a way to die.
Left to live a living death
With no one left to cry.
A petrified amazement,
A wonder beyond worth
A man who found more life in death
Than life gave him at birth.
But what about the folks who live
And wish that they could go?
Whose lives are lost to living
And performing for the show.
Well at least you got the best of life,
Until it got the best of you.
So from all of us,
To what's left of you,
Farewell, Andrew McCrew.
Words and Music by Don McLean
But let's not finish on such a dark note. Young children see the positive and the exciting. Eleanor Farjeon captured the feeling of enthrallment in a poem titled Jill Came from the Fair.
Jill came from the Fair
Jill came from the Fair
With her pennies all spent;
She had had her full share
Of delight and content;
She had ridden the ring
To a wonderful tune,
She had flown in a swing
Half as high as the moon,
In a boat that was drawn
By an ivory swan
Beside a green lawn
On a lake she had gone,
She had bought a gold packet
That held her desire;
She had touched the red jacket
Of one who ate fire,
She had stood at the butt,
And although she was small
She had won a rough nut
With the throw of a ball,
And across the broad back
Of a donkey a-straddle,
She had jolted like Jack-
In-the-Box on a saddle -
Till mid frolic and shout
And tinsel and litter,
The lights started out
Making everything glitter,
And dazed by the noise
And the blare and the flare,
With her toys and her joys
Jill came from the Fair.
What are your favorite stories about this Janus-faced idea, the circus?
Madeline and the Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans Suggested
Clown by Quentin Blake Suggested
Circus Family Dog by Andrew Clements and illustrated by Sue Truesdell Suggested
Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty Recommended
The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola Suggested
If I Ran the Circus by Dr. Seuss Recommended
Circus by Lois Ehlert Recommended
Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer Recommended
Sidewalk Circus by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes Recommended
Bearymore by Don Freeman Suggested
Spot Goes to the Circus by Eric Hill Suggested
Harold's Circus by Crockett Johnson Suggested
The Circus Is Coming by Hilary Knight Suggested
Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire Suggested
Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully Recommended
Moses Goes to the Circus by Isaac Millman Suggested
Emeline at the Circus by Marjorie Priceman Suggested
See the Circus by H. A. Rey Suggested
Circus Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina Suggested
Peter Spier's Circus by Peter Spier Recommended
House on East Eighty-Eighth Street by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended
Circus Parade by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Tanya Roitman Suggested
Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Circus Clown by David A. Adler and illustrated by Susanna Natti Suggested
Secret Heart by David Almond Suggested
Tents, Tigers, And the Ringling Brothers by Jerold W. Apps Suggested
The Circus of Adventure/the River of Adventure by Enid Blyton Suggested
Paddington Bear at the Circus by Michael Bond and illustrated by R. W. Alley Suggested
Clifford at the Circus by Norman Bridwell Suggested
The Circus Scare by Carolyn Keene and illustrated by Macky Pamintuan Suggested
Saving Lilly by Peg Kehret Recommended
Pippi Goes to the Circus by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Suggested
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended
Miss Bindergarten Plans a Circus With Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff Recommended
When the Circus Came to Town by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Suling Wang Suggested
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury Recommended
The Circus In Winter by Cathy Day Suggested
Under the Big Top by Bruce S. Feiler Suggested
Ghost Boy by Iain Lawrence Suggested
Slow Dollar by Margaret Maron Suggested
The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan Suggested
Billy Creekmore by Tracey Porter Suggested
The Blue Moon Circus by Michael Raleigh Suggested
The Aerialist by Richard Schmitt Suggested