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The Circus Ship
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know this picture book means well, but the bullying circus owner is so aggressively angry it’s hard to enjoy the pleasures of the book. Kids might be unsettled by the opening shipwreck scene, in which the circus owner orders the captain to leave the animals to drown in the water. Later, a young child trapped in a violently burning building is rescued by a tiger.
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What's the story?
Illustrator and author Chris Van Dusen loosely bases his story on a 1836 incident in which a boat carrying a circus went down in flames off the coast of Maine. In Van Dusen’s tale, the ship founders in a storm. Mr. Paine, the circus owner, saves himself and leaves behind his animals, who desperately swim to an island in Maine. The villagers at first are annoyed by the strange arrivals. But once a tiger -- reverting to his training -- leaps into a burning building to save a girl, the people befriend the animals. When Mr. Paine comes charging back to retrieve his animals, the villagers vow to keep him from taking any of them.
Is it any good?
There’s no shortage of bad guys in children’s stories, of course, but Mr. Paine is a little over the top in a story that feels contrived. Young kids -- for whom, typically, a circus is a source of delight rather than disgust -- may very well be taken aback by the sheer awfulness of this frightening grown-up bully. He hurls himself about the story, red-faced and corpulent, overwhelming the lighthearted touches. The rhyming text moves along easily enough, but the big twists in the plot -- the heroic tiger, and the sudden return of Mr. Paine -- are dispatched in a rush.
The idea of these strange animals stumbling ashore in 19th-century Maine is intrinsically fun, and Van Dusen offers some delightful scenes. One of the best moments is a simple hidden pictures-style two-page spread in which the 15 circus animals are disguised around the town: a camel as a haystack, an ostrich as a tree, and so on. Mr. Paine scratches his head in frustration, but kids will delight in finding each animal.
So brightly colored they veer toward gaudy, the best illustrations invite kids to explore the ways the circus animals have become part of village life.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about right and wrong. What should Mr. Paine have done when the ship sank? Why were his actions wrong? What about the captain?
The animals belonged to Mr. Paine. Were the villagers right to keep him from collecting what belonged to him? Why or why not?
The end notes describe a much sadder true story that Circus Ship is based on. Older kids and parents can talk about what parts of the story are different. What parts are the same?
For kids who love animals
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