Books Paranormal and Carnivale Picture Book Challenge 2012 Picture Books Reading Themes

Circus Girl by Jack Sendak and Pictures by Maurice Sendak

Poster courtesy of our treasured Iphigene

It is my first time to read a picture book by Jack Sendak. I knew as soon as I found Circus Girl in our community library that it was something that we should feature here for our Circus, Carnivale, Paranormal Twists theme until end of February.

A Play in Perspectives. Most of us are quite possibly wondering what it’s like to live in the circus (with all the continual excitement, noise, fanfare) – or for some, even running away with circus folks in the hopes of living an adventure-filled, transient, vagabond life with the road as one’s home. In this book written by Jack Sendak in the 1950s, there is a quirky shift in perspective with the little circus girl, Flora, wondering what it’s like to be outside of the circus walls.

Little Flora had spent all of her life in this dreamy, happy land of the circus, and she found joy in every minute of it.

But then Flora had a terrible dream about the people who came to see the circus every night. She began to wonder what they were like and what they did when they were not at the circus.

It didn’t help that the acrobat claimed “they spin on their heads all day long” which little Flora found to be “very very very very strange.” The lion tamer could neither confirm nor disconfirm this since “I haven’t heard any different, it might very well be true.” Hmm.. Indeed. All unfounded claims would need some form of empirical evidence for it to be validated as truth or untruth. The trapeze people, on the other hand, claimed that people outside are like spiders:

“They know how to spin webs. And they live in them, all tangled up. The ones that break loose come to see us here at the circus.”

That made me pause for a moment and think. Could there be a smidgen of truth to that in some respects?

“A Dream is Nothing but a Dream” and other self-discoveries. There is only one way to find out. Flora slipped out of what she has known to be home all her life one starry evening – to discover for herself whether the people outside spin on their heads all day long, or spin webs in which they get all tangled up in a gnarled mess, or could her awful dream possibly be true?

While the circus folks are aware that Flora has left their stewardship, “they sat down on their trunks and waited for her return.” They felt that this is a journey that Flora needed to make for herself.

Flora did see a menagerie of puppies and flocks of birds, and buildings like dollhouses – and yes, a few answers to her questions which may be summed up with Jack Sendak’s statement: “A dream is nothing but a dream.” More than anything, this book is a celebration of a heart that is determined to discover half-hidden truths – despite a wall of uncertainties, unspoken nightmares, and shapeless/faceless fears.

Teachers and parents would have a field day asking children what their thoughts about circus people are like. They could likewise draw some striking parallelisms and shimmering contrasts with little Flora’s experiences with the people ‘out there.’ If they are asked to be the hosts of little Flora, which places would they bring the Circus Girl to – so that she would have a deeper understanding of what life must be like ‘outside.’ The artwork also shows the classic Maurice Sendak lines – which would add a different kind of nuance to one’s reading of this cute picture book.

Jack Sendak (1923-2995) is the author of six books for children, beginning with The Happy Rain (1956) and Circus Girl (1957), both illustrated by his brother, Maurice Sendak. These were followed by The Second Witch (1965), illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; The King of the Hermits and Other Stories (1966), illustrated by Margot Zemach; and Martze (1968) and  The Magic Tears (1971) both illustrated by Mitchell Miller. 

 The New York Times Book Review said of these books: “Jack Sendak’s talent is for the mysterious; and, though new, his stories seem to have passed through generations, told around flickering fires and embellished with each new rendering.” (source for the quote: jacketflap of the book).

Circus Girl by Jack Sendak and Pictures by Maurice Sendak. Harper Collins, 1957, copyright renewed 1985. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.

PictureBook Challenge Update: 17 of 120

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

6 comments on “Circus Girl by Jack Sendak and Pictures by Maurice Sendak

  1. I had no idea Maurice Sendak had a brother who wrote stories. This looks like a really good story, & different from the usual (like that ‘other’ Sendak).


  2. Oh, Myra, more than a smidgeon 😉 “They know how to spin webs. And they live in them, all tangled up. The ones that break loose come to see us here at the circus.”

    I love that the circus folk recognize Flora’s need for personal discovery!

    Don’t you feel that reading Jack’s work also gives an additional sense of what the brothers childhood was like?

    Great idea to turn the tables and have the story looking from the circus out, rather than vice versa. Thank you for this discovery!


  3. Myra, Did you see Stephen Colbert’s interview with Maurice Sendak? I thought it was funny and charming. Sendak is so brusque generally, but he seemed quite amused by Colbert.


  4. Pingback: List of Circus, Carnivale, Paranormal Themed Books for All Ages «

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