Review of the Day: The Secret Circus by Johanna Wright
The way I see it, you can be the kind of publisher who takes risks or the kind of publisher who does the same thing over and over ad nauseam. Taking risks means possibly failing or creating wonderful forgotten pieces of art. Doing the same thing over and over means yet another princess / ballet / dinosaur / train / first day of school book. You’ll sell a title here and there, sure, but twenty or thirty years down the road will your book have made any kind of an impression on young minds? Because really, that’s what risky books do. They inspire dreams and unconscious memories. They can inform an entire life. And yes, sometimes they’ll be wonderful and disappear into the ground without a trace (Honey Badgers, Ultra-Violet Catastrophe, etc.) and sometimes they’ll make their mark. I sincerely hope that The Secret Circus makes its mark. Dark and evocative, seemingly simple and mesmerizing, first time picture book author/illustrator Johanna Wright has debuted like nobody’s business. Here you will find a book to seep effectively into the secret nooks and crannies of your child’s unwitting brain.
“Somewhere, deep in the city of Paris, there is a circus that is so small, and so secret . . . only the mice know how to find it.” A mouse family of four prepares to go to the circus even as the narrator informs us that only mice know things like when to go or what to wear. Under a starlit sky they slip beneath the platform of an old carousel and indulge in popcorn, peanuts, and strange red and white circular treats. And after the clowns and the tricks, the music and the death defying acts, “Only the mice know when it’s over,” and “Only the mice know how to keep the circus . . . secret.” Shhh.
Parisian set children’s fare tends to fall along the lines of Anatole or Madeline. Delightful one-namer pieces that have earned the terms “classic”. It’s far too soon to add The Secret Circus to that set, but it certainly shares an old-fashioned spirit with those two books. It has gotten to the point where a person cannot tell if the art in a picture book is painted or digitally drawn, but I think that it’s probably safe to say that Ms. Wright’s work is a result of old fashioned paint on canvas. That statement may come back to bite me on the bum, but it’s the impression that I get. The paints in this book are laid on in varying degrees of thickness. The colors are muted, and early on the pictures are seen as if they are taking place on an early evening when the sky has clouded over. Muddy greens, rose hues, and thick black lines dominate. The most prevalent color, however, is brown. It seeps through every page, which makes sense when you consider that the heroes of this book must spend a fair amount of time close to the good brown earth.
The whole lure of the title is in its mousey characters, though. Understand that these are not rich mice. They may not even be city mice, since a trip to the circus requires a balloon ride worthy of Babar and Celeste. Their clothes are old and frayed. When dressing up there’s a lot to be said for the little mouse who poses grandly before a mirror as her mother puts the finishing touches on one last patch. Once at the circus they watch the acts to varying degrees of delight and worry (the momma mouse appears to be gripping the shoulders of her daughter quite tightly). These mice grow on you too. A couple more reads and you can see a coy girl mouse on the dedication page blocking a near kiss by an ardent suitor. Or the sheer number of berets, placing this story firmly in the world of the French. There is much to see here. And much to discover too.
Wright’s tone is the grace of the book. The words are measured out. They don’t hurry or rush. Because the art is as stylized and seemingly simplistic as it is, a brash and brassy storyline or bit of writing would jar horribly. Instead, Wright doles out the story, and she manages to do so without making it too repetitive. Impressive when you consider that pretty much every two-page spread contains one sentence that begins with the words “Only the mice know.” By all logic, that should get old fast. The fact that it doesn’t is a testament to the author’s audacity. Not only is she assuming that kids will willingly hear these words over and over, but that adults will be willing to read them over and over as well. But you find yourself wanting to do so. And I haven’t tested this theory, but there is something about this story that makes you read those very lines in a kind of hushed whisper. Reading this book is like taking a trip to a world that you are desperately afraid you might wake up from. Apropos then that the last image in the book is of a mouse holding its finger to its mouth in a smiling hush.
Beware the librarian with an agenda. I have already planned out my next move with this book. Once in a while a parent or child will approach my reference desk and say that they want a circus book. I pull out the usual Where’s Pup? and Parade of Colors fare, but my heart’s not in it. Now I’ll have an excuse to slip The Secret Circus into the mix. To work in something a little new, a little baffling, and a little strange. As with eating, kids need some variety in their diet. And what The Secret Circus provides is a strange and wonderful mix of wonder and nostalgia. It’s like when you hear a song that makes you long for a time you’ve never known. A strange and secret beauty. Now pass the secret along.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: This is interesting. I don’t know what it’s called (gesso?) but sometime a publisher will put a shiny transparent substance on a book’s cover to highlight one aspect of that cover or another. This tends to be fairly predictable. It’ll be the title or the main character or some other such nonsense. The crazy thing about the cover of The Secret Circus is that the shininess is there, but not where you’d expect to find it. It’s on a tiny carousel on the ground. On various bright sparkling lights that surround the mice in their balloon. Remarkable. So much work for such a small thing.
Other Blog Reviews:
- You will find no better look at Ms. Wright and her art than in this Seven Impossible Things visit.
- Like what you see? Then you may wish to get a glimpse of Ms. Wright’s art on her website or at her adorable Etsy shop. I, of course, have an eye towards the birds.
- On her sister’s blog you will find a shot of the mouse circus that is not actually in the book.
- And an extra added sneaky peek at Johanna herself.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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