The Circus Ship

Common Sense Media says

Odd shipwreck tale comes on a little strong.





What parents need to know

Educational value
Not applicable
Positive messages

The villagers change their view toward the animals after a tiger’s heroic act and then work together to protect the animals.

Positive role models

Rather than let the cruel circus owner collect the animals he abandoned, the villagers protect their new friends. But the ship captain, described as “honest and sincere,” goes along with the captain’s selfish orders.

Violence & scariness

The circus ship goes down in a storm, and the circus owner leaves the animals to drown. A baby is rescued from a fire. The circus owner is powerfully drawn as a mean, intimidating bully.

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.

Parents say

Kids say

Not yet rated
Review this title!

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.

Families can talk 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?

Book details

Author:Chris Van Dusen
Illustrator:Chris Van Dusen
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Candlewick Press
Publication date:September 22, 2009
Number of pages:40
Publisher's recommended age(s):4 - 8
Read aloud:5
Read alone:6

This review of The Circus Ship was written by

About our rating system

  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

Find out more


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging, great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging, good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging, good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging, okay learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

Find out more

About our buy links

When you use our links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. Thank you for your support.
Read more

See more about how we rate and review.

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Parent of a 12 and 15 year old Written byjpcullen October 2, 2009
My first graders absolutely loved this book when the librarian read it to us the other day. We are big Chris VanD fans and this book had all the things we love- lots of action, great rhythm and rhyme, and bright, bold illustrations. It is now a favorite in our class library, even among those who usually never deign to read anything but chapter books.
Parent of a 3, 5, and 6 year old Written byWaltzing Matilda October 30, 2009
The story is based loosely on an actual event in Maine. It's a good read by a GREAT illustrator. Also check out Chris VanDusen's Mr. Magee books and If I Built a Car. The guy is 1950s-vintage GREAT.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Parent of a 3 year old Written byJoodee December 5, 2012

Very enjoyable for my 3 year old.

My sensitive 3 1/2 year old daughter loves it. The writing is fun and the illustrations are dynamic and interesting (especially the page where all the animals are hiding).


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?

Essential Apps Guide