This is the next in an ongoing series of topic related posts which are aimed at helping educators and/or parents to find books which are suitable accompaniments to their topic based projects in school.
I tend to steer away from recommending non-fiction works, as these are much easier for you to search on using Amazon or other book sites, given that the majority of non fiction topic books will have key words in the title. It’s not so easy with works of fiction.
Our entire school will be celebrating our return to a new academic year in September, with a school wide topic on circuses. Here are some of the books we have discovered which you may want to use if you are doing a similar project yourselves.
I will indicate where I have read the book in question. If I do not mention it, I have not read it, and I would advise you to read all the books in question before you give them to children just to double check they are fit for purpose.
If you have any recommendations I have missed, please feel free to drop them in the comments box below the post.
When I create a list like this for Key Stage Two readers I generally suggest whether the book would be suitable for guided reading (length is the main criteria here, as it will need to be started and finished within the topic parameters and in school time), and whether it is suitable for girls or boys or both. With Key Stage One books this is less problematic as the books tend to be simpler, shorter and more universal in appeal. If I think a book has a specific bias or there is an issue with gender I will point it out. Otherwise all the books are suitable for everyone.
As this is a school wide topic I will split the books into KS1 and KS2 books:
KS1 Books about the Circus
Little Grey Rabbit and the Circus by Alison Uttley – The Little Grey Rabbit books are gems from my childhood. I particularly loved this one. I suspect it is now totally out of date and have only added it for nostalgia purposes. The pictures are particularly lovely, but the books are tiny (maybe half as large again as Beatrix Potter books) and this makes them difficult to share with a class. It works better in small groups where everyone can huddle round and see the pictures. These are gentle stories about a rabbit who lives with a hare and a squirrel and who usually has lots of rural type adventures. In this book things get a little more exciting than usual, with the arrival of the circus. This book is currently out of print, although copies are available from a penny from sellers via Amazon.
Big Top Benn by David McKee – Written by the author of the Elmer Books, this is the story on which one of the Mr Benn episodes from the Seventies television animation was based. Again, I have added this for nostalgia purposes only, although I expect the fact that you will be able to drag up the episode on Youtube, and children will already be familiar with McKee’s style from his hundreds of other books, makes this more suitable for modern audiences.
You See A Circus, I see.. by Mike Downs – A young acrobat shows some visitors his circus home, and manages to show both the magic of the circus performance, and the fact that the circus is his home and the performers are his family.
Peter Spier’s Circus by Peter Spier – A celebration of the circus by Caldecott Medal winning author and illustrator Peter Spier
If I Ran The Circus – Dr. Seuss – Morris McGurk dreams of having the most elaborate, amazing circus on earth. Packed with bright, iconic Seuss illustrations, wonderful word play and rhymes and a real sense of fun, this is a classic of children’s literature.
Emmeline At The Circus by Marjorie Priceman – Emmeline’s teacher, Miss Splinter, takes the class on a trip to the circus, where she tells them they will learn everything. Emmeline certainly does, as she takes part in every circus activity and amazes all her friends.
See The Circus by H. A. Rey – H. A. Rey is the author of the classic Curious George stories. He also illustrated and created a whole series of lift the flap books for young readers, of which this trip through the world of the circus is one.
Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer – Olivia is a pig with pretensions to grandeur. She is a diva, a prima donna, the star of her own show. Olivia is wonderful. In this book Olivia is responsible for saving the circus, hoorah! These books are simply written, and the black, white and red palette of the illustrations often belie the sophistication they contain. This is a wonderfully funny book and a worthy addition to the Olivia series.
Clown by Quentin Blake – Not technically a circus story, this is too wonderful to be left out of the list, and it does have a clown in it. Clown is a toy who is thrown away into a dustbin. He escapes from the bin and adventures off into the city where he eventually finds a family to love him, because he is willing to help them feel good about themselves and as cared for as he wants to be himself. This is a lovely story which is given a charm and humour that lifts the potential schmaltziness of the storyline and makes it into something only Quentin Blake could really get away with.
Claude at the Circus by Alex T. Smith – This is the third in a series of short adventure stories about an amazingly talented dog called Claude. The format is difficult to see, and not having read these I am not entirely sure whether these should be in the KS1 or KS2 reading list. I have a feeling they will be somewhere in the middle depending on the abilities of the children you are reading to. The reviews are uniformly positive and suggest that these are funny, accessible stories that children will love.
Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos – Rotten Ralph is an evil, red cat who delights in being a total pain. He visits the circus and disrupts the entire show, leaving him locked in a cage eating rotten popcorn. Which, frankly, is no more than he deserves. There are a whole series of picture books in which Ralph ruins many a good celebration.
Last Night I Dreamed A Circus by Maya Goggried – This is a dreamscape of a book in which the narrator vividly imagines herself taking part in every turn at the circus and imagining how it feels. This book is currently out of print, second hand copies are available from sellers via Amazon.
Dad Runs Away with the Circus by Etgar Keret – Dad causes chaos in his family when suddenly, late on in life, he decides to follow his dream and run away with the circus. This is funny, and also sad, as it highlights the gap between what happens to the person who is following their dream and those who get left behind. My children all loved this book. I thought it was rather morbid. This book is out of print at the current time, but second hand copies are available from sellers via Amazon.
Harold’s Circus by Crockett Johnson – Harold is an iconic figure in US children’s literature, although less well known in the UK. There are a whole series of books about Harold. Harold always has a purple crayon. As he draws across the page, he follows the line he is making into all sorts of adventures. Here, Harold draws himself into the circus. This book is out of print in the UK at the current time, but it is available from sellers via Amazon.
The Circus Ship by Chris van Dusen – A circus is making its way by ship to its next port of call, when there is a terrible storm. The animals get washed up in a tiny village on the coast of Maine in the US. The cruel ring master is missing and the animals bed down with the villagers in an unusual, yet harmonious life. Until one day the ring master turns up and the villagers have to come to the animals’ rescue. This book is currently out of print, but second hand copies are available via sellers on Amazon.
Mr Majeika Joins The Circus by Humphrey Carter – This is one of many books in the long running series about Mr. Majeika the magician who is also a teacher. This is an easy, humorous read, and is suitable for KS1 as a teacher led story time, and lower KS2 as guided reading or independent reading if the child is confident enough.
TumTum and Nutmeg: A Circus Adventure by Emily Bearn – This is one in a series of books about the mice TumTum and Nutmeg. Illustrated in a kind of Brambly Hedge, folksy style and a cross between a novel and a picture book, these are charming stories, which are squarely aimed at girls aged from about six upwards.
Paddington Bear at the Circus by Michael Bond – This is a standalone picture book taken from the novels about Paddington Bear. Paddington visits the circus and experiences his usual misadventures.
A Small Surprise by Louise Yates – An endearing story about a small rabbit with a big surprise up his furry sleeve. This is beautifully illustrated and a joy to read.
The Fabulous Foskett Family Circus by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake – These images were first commissioned to be painted by Quentin Blake onto the walls of a hospital ward. The book was then commissioned with a specially created text by John Yeoman, celebrating all the eccentricities of this crazy circus family.
Amazing Esme and the Sweet Shop Circus by Tamara MacFarlane – This is one of a whole series of circus themed books written around the figure of The Amazing Esme. The Amazing Esme lives in a circus and works on a high wire act with her family. Bored of practicing the same routines every day she decides that she needs to import some animals to liven up the mix.
Circus by Roxie Munro – A lift the flap book exploring all the magic of the circus. Definitely an early years/ pre school book, and one for sharing in small groups within school with an adult supervision.
Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey – Biscuit Bear is alone in the kitchen and so decides when the lights are out and the family are in bed to make himself a whole circus of friends to keep him entertained. Sadly, tragedy befalls them in the shape of a hungry, neighbourhood dog. What will Biscuit Bear do now?
Circus in the Sky by Nancy Guettier – A story that illustrates the constellations in a new and beautiful way.
Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett – A glorious picture book illustrated in a circus setting which is clever and simple and very funny.
Circus by Lois Ehlert – A glorious picture book showing the wonders of the circus depicted in a series of bold and colourful paper cuts.
My Mom is the Best Circus by Luciana Navarro Powell – This cute story shows how mum is more entertaining than any circus and has many more magical tricks up her sleeve.
Sidewalk Circus by Paul Fleischmann – This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination to transform the ordinary into something magical. My children love this story.
The Secret Circus by Johanna Wright – Another magical adventure of the imagination as a family of mice set off in a hot air balloon across Paris to discover a secret circus.
Skippyjon Jones: Cirque de OLE by Judy Schachner – one in a series about the adventurous Siamese kitten Skippyjon Jones. Here he visits the circus and tests out his trapeze skills.
Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully – This tells the story of a young girl who is taught to walk the high wire by an old circus entertainer who has lost his nerve and had to retire. It is a great story of a young girl’s bravery and is beautifully illustrated.
Circus Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina – This is the story of a cap seller who visits the circus to sell his caps, only to find that the mischievous elephant has pinched all his caps and is distributing them amongst the circus folk.
Morris and Boris at the Circus by B. Wiseman – Morris Moose has never been to the circus, so his friend Boris takes him there. Morris is invited to join in and has a wonderful time, but Boris is not so lucky.
Madeline and the Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans – Madeline and her friends visit a gypsy carnival and have lots of fun until a terrible storm blows. Madeline’s friends go home, but Madeline stays behind and learns how to do all manner of circus tricks. This book is currently out of print, but there are copies available from second hand sellers via Amazon.
Key Stage 2 books about the Circus
Enid Blyton – Enid Blyton wrote a considerable number of books about the circus. Most of them are quite similar to each other, and rather than go over them book by book I will merely list them here and let you choose which ones you prefer. Blyton’s books are all still in print, so there is obviously an enthusiastic market out there for her work, but I would caution that I have never managed to interest a single modern child in reading anything by her and sticking with it. The language is very dated, the concepts are also dated, and the morals and ideas can come across as rather challenging these days. If this has not put you off you can choose from: Mr Galliano’s Circus, Away With the Circus, Five Go Off in a Caravan; Circus Days Again; Hurrah for the Circus!; Come to the Circus and The Circus of Adventure.
Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield – This is a classic story in the series that followed the best selling Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield. It follows the same formula as all the other stories in the series. Aunt Rebecca dies, leaving Peter and Santa with nobody to look after them. The thought of being split up and sent to separate orphanages is intolerable, so they run away to the circus.
Dr. Doolittle’s Circus by Hugh Lofting – Another classic tale, this time one of the Dr. Doolittle series, where presumably Dr. Doolittle’s remarkable ability to be able to talk to the animals stands him in excellent stead. This book is currently out of print, but there are second hand copies via Amazon sellers available from a penny.
High Wire by Melanie Jackson – A mystery adventure story about a young boy called Zack, an orphan whose aunt takes him in, and who loves his life as a high wire walker, until one day he gets mixed up in a case of a missing necklace.
Tilly’s Pony Tales 10: Nimrod the Circus Pony by Pippa Funell – One of a series of stories about the exciting lives of ponies. Horse mad, Tilly Redbrow is ecstatic when she acquires a circus pony at her farm. As you can imagine.
Spy Pups: Circus Act by Andrew Cope – Spy Pups is a hugely popular series of books about two dogs, Star and Spud who go on various undercover missions with their mother who is a Licensed Assault and Rescue Animal. In this particular adventure they find themselves undercover at the circus.
The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo – This is the story of Bertie, who rescues a lion cub from the African Veldt and befriends it. Their friendship is torn apart when Bertie has to go to boarding school in England and the lion is sent away to a circus.
Fizzleberrt Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away From The Circus by A. F. Harold – This is the first in a series of books about Fizzlebert Stump. My children enjoyed this book, and we have it in the library at school, where it is taken out fairly regularly, which suggests it’s a good story. Fizzlebert is the only child in the circus, and he’s bored of sticking his head in lion’s mouths and travelling about with acrobats and fire eaters. He runs away to live in a library.
Lion Boy by Zizou Corder – Charlie can speak cat. He uses his extraordinary skill to help him track down his missing parents. He stows away on board a ship where he befriends some circus lions who help him in his quest. This is the first in a series of books by Zizou Corder about Lion Boy.
The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas by David Almond and Oliver Jeffers – A magical tale about Stanley Potts who has to find his destiny by running away to meet Pancho Pirelli, the blue caped man who swims with piranhas.
Magical Moon Cat: Moonbeam and the Circus of Wishes by Annie Dalton – Jax and her magical moon cat, who have already had a series of adventures, published previously in this series, get into trouble at a city farm and also get tangled up with a circus.
The Palace of Laughter: The Wednesday Tales book 1 by Jon Berkeley – This is the first in a series about Miles Wednesday, an orphan who lives in a barrel until he discovers the Circus Oscuro, a fantastical and magical circus that leads him into the adventure of a life time.
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean – This is the story of Haoyou, a boy whose father is dead, and who, Haoyou believes, now resides as a spirit in the skies where he flies his kite. His mother is being forced into a marriage she does not want, and Haoyou is being trapped in a destiny he does not want, until the awesome Jade Circus offer him a way out and a chance to travel across the empire and perform for Kublai Khan.
Pippi Goes To The Circus by Astrid Lindgren – One of the many fabulous tales about the eponymous Swedish superhero of children’s literature, Pippi Longstockings.
The Circus Kids by Andre J. Garant – A group of children from a Catholic school in the US are worried that their school will close without more funds. They decide to create a circus made of the talent they have in school, to raise money to keep the school open.
Calendar Mysteries: August Acrobat by Ron Roy – one in a series of mystery stories for younger readers in which the children detectives get involved in a mystery at the circus when it pulls into town.
The Ring Master’s Secret: Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene – One of the classic Nancy Drew detective stories in which Nancy visits the circus.
A Circus Wish: Magic Kitten by Sue Bentley – This is the sixth in the series by Sue Bentley about cute kittens who go on magical and exciting adventures. Amazingly, this kitten ends up at the circus. It concerns the heir to the lion throne who is forced, for magical reasons to go about in the body of a small kitten. He then ends up in the hands of a circus mad girl called Sadie.
Sparkle the Circus Pony: Magic Pony Carousel by Poppy Shires – Megan loves ponies, and when she spots the magical pony carousel she hops aboard and lets herself be whisked off on a pony adventure into the world of the circus.
Circus Galacticus by Deva Fagan – The first in a new intergalactic fantasy adventure series in which an orphan girl, Trix, is having a horrible time at the boarding school she is sent to, being bullied by girls who aren’t willing to accept her. Trix decides to run away, but the fact that she has inherited a strange piece of space rock turns out to mean that she is able to run much further than most, and her adventures take her to a magical circus in the stars.