|Art by Diana Sudyka|
Circus Mirandus is the debut novel by Cassie Beasley and it comes with a lot of advance excitement, a movie deal and praise, all of which are deserved. When I first read the blurb for Circus Mirandus, I was reminded of a book that made an impression on me when I was in junior high, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. And, while both books are set at a magical circus, Beasley's book, amazingly, has almost none of the darkness and despair that Bradbury's does. Despite this, and equally amazing, Beasley has written a book that, while wholly appealing to children, also has a very adult feel and structure with layers of meaning that, like Bradbury's book, will ripple and resonate with readers into their adult lives.
When Circus Mirandus begins, we find Micah Tuttle worrying over his grandfather, a man who, despite sadness and loss, continues to live his life and raise his grandson with a joy for living. And, while Ephraim Tuttle's life seems to be near its end, Micah believes that there is hope. Grandpa Ephraim is owed a miracle by a man he met decades ago when he was a child - the Lightbender from the Circus Mirandus. If Grandpa can get a message to the Lightbender, maybe things can go back to the way they were and the horrible Great-Aunt Gertrudis who has come to take care of her brother, will leave. While Micah forges ahead, trying to reach the Lightbender himself (and with the help of his classmate, the pragmatic Jenny Mendoza) when it seems that Ephraim's message has fallen on deaf ears, Beasely moves backwards in time, giving readers a glimpse into Ephraim's childhood spent wishing his father home from the war and young his life raising his little sister.
Intertwined with this are visits to the circus itself. In an interview with Betsy Bird at School Library Journal, Beasley discusses the tropes surrounding the use of circuses and carnivals in literature, movies and television. Vibrant and exciting on the outside, literary circuses are often dark and dangerous on the inside. Beasley says that a circus can "contain so much potential creepiness. It can be a transient and turbulent beast that arrives in an otherwise stagnant environment and starts to change things around. People alter their daily routine. Children sneak out of their houses to see the show. The town is suddenly a temporary home to masked strangers who will perform peculiar feats for a few nights and then depart." This describes perfectly Bradbury's carnival, but not Beasley's. In fact, she was surprised the first time someone asked her if her circus story was scary, Circus Mirandus being so far from the traditional tropes. Beasley's circus is dedicated to keeping magic alive by keeping the belief in magic alive in the children who visit the Circus Mirandus, which has been magnificent since 500 B.C.
Beasley's circus is magical and magnificent, starting with Geoffrey, the ticket taker who works the door. These can be anything and the ticket can be for any amount of time. Ephraim hands over a fish that was caught in his boot when he was trying to walk across the ocean to reach his father. This fish grants him a rare week-long pass. Once inside, he sees shows, people and creatures, from a French vulture who "could tell the future by plucking its own feathers," to flocks of fairies that flit around, occasionally taking the shape of butterflies. There are "candies that fizz and pop," drinks that make you sing opera for an hour and gummy candies that light up in your mouth when you chew them. There is the Amazing Amazonian Bird Woman who flies around the tent robed in pure white feathers amid a flock of colorful birds from around the world. Then there is the Man Who Bends Light who, one character quips, should be called the "Man Who Bends Minds." The Circus Mirandus is like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory - a magical literary place that young readers will never forget.
Another visit to the Circus Mirandus is coming next year, and I am so excited. While Circus Mirandus is a complete story in and of itself, Beasely gives readers glimpses into characters and their lives that I want to know more about! I hope that we find out more about Victoria and the rest of Micah's family and, of course, more about the wonders of the circus itself . . .
Source: Review Copy