Thursday, October 07, 2021

Long Road to the Circus

Bird, Betsy and Small, David (illus.). Long Road to the Circus
October 5th 2021 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Suzy lives in a big family in the small town of Burr Oak, Michigan in 1920, and even though her family roots there are deep, she has a secret dream to travel the world. When her uncle and his family move back to the family farm, he mysteriously doesn't appear in the morning for chores, which is a serious business. Suzy follows him far out of town, and is surprised when he turns out to be working for the elusive town legend, Madame Marantette, working with her flock of ostriches. Intrigued not only by the woman who managed to make it out of Burr Oak and make a name for herself, but by the birds, Suzy decides that she will learn to ride Guacho, Madame's favorite ostrich, and train him to pull a surrey alongside a horse in order to help Madame make a world record. This is not an easy job, and her family is not thrilled with this. In order to be given permission to work with her uncle, she has to agree to do twice the chores around the family farm, which leaves her little time for her best friend. Madame takes an interest in her, giving her comportment lessons once a week, and commanding her to ride the ostrich side saddle, which she feels will be more of an "event". When her uncle is unable to go to work one day, she decides that she will try to ride Guacho, but takes a bad fall and dislocates her shoulder. Her parents are angry and forbid her to go back, but with the help of her brother, manages to sneak out to the fair where Madame is planning to participate in the parade with her surrey and unusual team. Suzy has to get up the gumption to take a chance that might allow her to escape Burr Oak. Will she e able to carry through with her plans?
Strengths: I feel that in order to fully appreciate the brilliance of this novel, you need to know the entire history of middle grade literature in the twentieth century and have read a great deal of it... and Bird definitely has impeccable credentials in both of these areas. Even the illustrations are perfect and have that lovely Joe and Beth Krush with a touch of Quentin Blake feel to them. I'd love to know Small's inspiration. The farm setting, the imposing Madame in her black gown, and Suzy's desire to see more of the world reminded me of some of my favorite books, like Langton's The Majesty of Grace. The supporting characters are all pitch perfect and wonderfully nuanced, even seen through Suzy's eyes. The fact that this is based on Bird's family's involvement with the real  Madame Marantette and the fact that Small lived in her house... wow. I can see this being a great read aloud in elementary school, and would be a great way to include the study of ostriches in the classroom! 
Weaknesses: This had a very solid 1920s setting, so when Suzy would occasionally come through with a more modern sentiment, it was a bit jarring. Younger readers won't recognize this, and it's something that is very hard to avoid. 
What I really think: This reminded me a good deal of Fitzgerald's The Great Brain and Cleary's Emily's Runaway Imagination, and was a tremendously well researched and constructed middle grade novel. I would be perfectly happy if this won the Newbery award, since it combines key elements of classic novels while bringing a fresh energy to them. This might take a bit of handselling with my own students, since the cover is a bit different, but I will purchase this. 

Ms. Yingling

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