They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I beg to differ. See that cover over there on the left? Kind of amazing, right? And the hand drawn goodness wraps around to the back as well. In all honesty, it almost didn’t matter what this book was about. I fell in love with the cover art and had to bring it home.
Thankfully, the story is just as delightful as the paper it’s wrapped in. Wonder Show tells the tale of a young girl, Portia, whose father leaves the dust bowl in search of work. Her aunt takes care of her for a while, but ultimately puts her in a home for “wayward” girls under the watchful eye of a man known only as Mister.
Without giving anything away, events transpire and Portia runs away to join the circus. Literally. Actually, she meets up with the “wonder show,” which is basically a sideshow of human abnormalities that travels alongside any circus that will have them. As she adjusts to circus life she makes friends and enemies, confronts fears, and learns to be a part of a very unusual family.
This book does many things well, including exploring alternative ideas of normality – when you are traveling the country with a giant and a dwarf, conjoined twins, an armless knife thrower, and a family of albinos, being an average 14-year-old girl can be a detriment. It also explores concepts of family, the importance of storytelling, and self-reliance.
There were a few bits that threw me off, however. The story is told from Portia’s point of view, but then almost halfway through the book there is a short chapter narrated by another character. These chapters come more frequently in the second half of the book, giving brief insight into the lives of the supporting cast, but it may have worked better had this technique been used evenly throughout the book. Also, I wanted to categorize this as Intermediate, i.e. appropriate for readers ages 8-12, as most of the book would be perfect for that age group. But there was one plot element that was so unexpectedly dark that I’m not sure I could recommend this for younger readers. So, you’ve been warned.
In the past year, I’ve read four books about the circus, two of which are still sitting on my massive To Be Reviewed pile: Water for Elephants, The Night Circus, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and now Wonder Show. That’s four more circus books than I read most years. But I have to say, each of them has revealed a different aspect of the circus and shed a bit of fictional light on the inner workings of the traveling show.