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The Floating Circus

The Floating Circus

5.0 8
by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

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In 1852 Ohio, twelve-year-old Owen steals aboard a floating circus called the River Palace, with nothing more in mind than catching a little of the show. But then a free black man named Solomon offers to take him on as an assistant animal keeper, and Owen discovers a family among the ragtag members of the circus-including a young elephant named Little Bet. A brush


In 1852 Ohio, twelve-year-old Owen steals aboard a floating circus called the River Palace, with nothing more in mind than catching a little of the show. But then a free black man named Solomon offers to take him on as an assistant animal keeper, and Owen discovers a family among the ragtag members of the circus-including a young elephant named Little Bet. A brush with yellowfever in New Orleans and a devastating storm threaten the boat and its crew. But it's the menace of slave catchers that poses the greatest danger of all, and that will put Owen's loyalty to Solomon and Little Bet to the test. This is a memorable tale of prejudice, race, and the relationships that transcend them. Inspired by the riverboat circuses of the nineteenth century, it also brings little known historical facts to life.

TRACIE VAUGHN ZIMMER has worked as a special education teacher and reading specialist. She is also the creator of more than 80 teacher's guides for numerous publishers and has published poetry books as well as the novel Reaching for Sun. Tracie lives outside Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two children.


"Like taking slow bites from a piece of homemade lemon pie-sharp sweet and honest."
-Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medal winner

"Josie's strength shines as she handles sadness and loss as well as recovery and progress."-Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A circus boat in the 1850s is the offbeat setting for Zimmer's (Reaching for Sun) lively historical novel. Readers will be hooked from the start by the voice of the narrator, Owen, first met in a Pittsburgh orphanage as he describes the difference between him and his younger brother, Zach: "Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin." Wanting the best for Zach, Owen runs away when, just before the two are put aboard an orphan train, Owen learns that Zach will have a much better chance of being adopted without a brother; from this chaotic beginning, Owen stumbles upon Solomon, a former slave, who brings him aboard the circus boat and gets him a job. As the boat travels south, Owen's awareness of slavery grows in a way that feels organic to the story. Historical details, such as the workings of a printing press, give readers a deeper taste of the era, and animal lovers will especially enjoy Zimmer's portrayal of the circus elephant that Owen comes to know. Bittersweet and satisfying. Ages 8-12. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Children's Literature - Sarah Maury Swan
Twelve-year-old Owen Burke and his eight-year-old brother Zach have been abandoned by their parents into the care of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania orphanage in 1853. To win a bet of a week's worth of bread, Owen climbs a very tall tree. But just as he's about to win, he plummets to the ground. When he finally comes to, he discovers his left arm is numb and useless. When the children are put on the "Orphan Train" to be adopted out west for farm work, Owen thinks his presence will make it harder for Zach to be adopted. Owen skips off the train at the last minute and ends up on a barge. The vessel houses a circus, complete with elephants, horses and lions. Owen is befriended by freed Negro Solomon, and the boy helps his new friend keep the animals fed and their cages clean. He learns about the evils of slavery and the trickery of men. He also makes friends with Caleb, the only other boy on the boat. Caleb's father hires Owen to help print out flyers about the circus. Owen misses Zach terribly. Solomon nurses Owen through yellow fever and shows him how to heal his left arm. But when the boat gets to New Orleans, yellow fever is raging through the city and the circus is disbanded. Solomon is sold back into slavery and Owen ends up with the baby elephant. He vows to rescue Solomon. He discovers his brother is safe and that he has been adopted by two sisters the boys knew in Pittsburgh. He and the baby elephant join another circus, with Owen as the trainer. I enjoyed this book. Good storytelling brings the history to life. The reader gets a sense of circus life, the horrors of slavery and how tough it was to survive in those difficult times. Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan
VOYA - Elsworth Rockefeller
After falling from a tree at the Pittsburgh orphanage where he lives, Owen deems himself and his injured arm unappealing to potential adopters and runs away, thinking his younger brother will have better luck finding a family without Owen by his side. Owen meets and befriends Solomon, a former slave and employee on a circus boat, and soon finds himself with a job onboard. As the circus moves down the river, Owen learns about more than circus life, including the unjust treatment of slaves and former slaves and the importance of family-both birth and chosen. Owen is an engaging character, and his voice feels authentic. Historical details are nicely incorporated into the story, which helps it move organically. Owen's internal dialogue gets didactic at times-"Strange, I know, but hearing the Skeleton Man's real name felt like a kick to the gut. I never thought of the freaks being like regular folks with Christian names." There are a few editing inconsistencies, including a lion who is identified as "the great male lion" but referred to with female pronouns earlier in the book, but these flaws certainly do not spoil the reading experience. Despite occasional violence toward animals and people, the writing feels traditional and accessible and will be a treat for young readers interested in circus history and historical fiction, although some will be disappointed there is not a bibliography of sources. Reviewer: Elsworth Rockefeller
School Library Journal

Gr 4-7

In 1853 Pittsburgh, Owen Burke, 13, and his younger brother are abandoned by their widowed mother. Soon the boys are on an orphan train that will ostensibly take them to a better life on a farm. Owen jumps off and finds his way to a circus boat. Befriended by Solomon, an elderly former slave, the boy is given work mucking the animals' stalls and keeping the boat clean. He feels loyal to his mentor and develops a trustful relationship with Little Bet, an elephant. The boy is also taken under the wing of Mr. Greene, who runs the print shop and whose son, Caleb, becomes a surrogate younger brother. A sudden turn of events includes a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans, a storm that forces the end of the River Palace circus, the sale of Solomon despite his "free papers," and an appearance by the famous clown Dan Rice, who buys Little Bet. While Owen agrees to join Rice, he also receives an offer to move with Caleb and his family to Philadelphia as their stable boy, learns that his brother has been adopted and is back in Pittsburgh, and determines to find and free Solomon. Although Owen seems more insightful than a 13-year-old is likely to be, his engaging narration moves along at a satisfying pace, and the door is left open for a sequel.-Sheila Fiscus, Our Lady of Peace School, Erie, PA

Kirkus Reviews
This rousing adventure set in 1852 Pittsburgh introduces readers to Owen and Zach, two boys from a poor white family who have been abandoned into the care of an orphanage. Figuring his younger brother has a better chance at being adopted alone, 12-year-old Owen runs away, finding work on a circus boat where he is befriended by Solomon, an ex-slave, and where he ultimately finds some happiness and even a new family of sorts. But that happiness begins to crack when Owen witnesses a runaway slave throwing himself out of a window rather than being caught, and it fully shatters when he learns that his friend Solomon has been apprehended by slavers who have disregarded his freedom papers. Owen is, for the most part, a likable and believable hero; although his epiphanies-about his father's alcoholism and his mother's decision to abandon him, for example-feel contrived and in some cases a bit too abrupt, readers will cheer him on as he makes his way, enthusiasm intact, through a very rough world. (author's note, discussion guide) (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
8 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Floating Circus

Copyright © 2008

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59990-185-5

Chapter One I shoulda listened to my brother. Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin. That rotten-mouthed Simeon wagered me his bread for a week if I could touch the roof of the orphanage. The nag in my stomach could get me to do most anything, and the roof didn't seem but a stretch higher than my usual spot. Every afternoon I'd scramble up there to try to catch a glimpse of Momma on the busy streets of Pittsburgh. Skinny enough to see through, I was sure I could make it to the top of that tree fast as a squirrel. And I nearly did, too. When the branches started to bend and crackle under my weight, did it stop me? Heck, no. I wrapped my fingers around the branches and kept pulling myself toward sky.

My brother, Zach, called up to me, "Get back down here, Owen! I'll throw sticks like you want."

"No! I'm bored sick of that game!"

At first, all the kids at the orphanage, even the ones who just learned how to walk, watched me start up the tree. Shading their eyes from the spring sun, they followed me. But it's a mighty big tree and little ones-why, they lose interest fast. When I looked back down again, they'd scattered like chickens, plucking in the dirt or chasing each other around. I liked it better with an audience. Always had. I knew if I got close to the roof they'd all come back to see, and they did.

I called to them: "Boys and girls! Lice magnets! Wastrels! Do not miss this daring exhibition of human skill. Owen Burke is a one-of-a-kind. Why, even monkeys in the jungles try to imitate his ways! He's an American marvel" Now all the kids were staring again. The little ones waved at me, and I waved back and smiled.

Though it made me teeter a bit, I cupped my hands around my mouth, steadying myself by wedging my knee in a crook. "Simeon, are you watching?" I shouted. "I'm about to get all your bread for the week!" Simeon was ignoring me, or trying to, sitting on the steps with the older boys. They were playing poor man's marbles, their pockets filled with pebbles that they'd rubbed against the bricks to get them round as they could.

At this height (about five men with top hats stacked up, maybe) I had a good view of the streets beyond the brick walls. The sun started to slip into blankets of clouds, and the whole city looked washed clean in the pale light. I could see the Y-shaped rivers-the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela-sparkling and lots of the roofs of houses beyond. For a moment, it made me wonder whether Momma might still be living inside of one them. Now that she'd rid herself of me and Zach she had more options. Maybe she'd run off to a big city like New York or even out West to pan for gold! Thinking on Momma made me feel like I swallowed burning paper. She could rot. This was my world now and I was going to show that Simeon!

Finally, I got to the last strong limb near the roof and started edging my way out like an inchworm. My hands were icy and damp and my feet kept trying to slip out of my too-big boots. When I was a hand away, I called back down to Simeon so he couldn't deny I'd made it. I could taste his bread now.

"Look, Simeon! I did it!" Just as I reached out to touch the roof line, the branch made a hideous crack beneath me and snapped. I hit near to every limb as I fell, fast as you can say "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" Then it all went black.

Chapter Two When I finally woke up, I wished I hadn't. It felt as if a cow had danced a jig all over my body. Everything hurt except my left arm, which felt like it was missing. It lay beside me like it belonged to somebody else. Zach was there reading the Bible when I woke up. My eyes were so swollen it was easier to keep them closed than open.

"Owen? Owen?" Zach whispered to me. "You've got to get better now."

I groaned but couldn't say anything just yet. I wanted to say I was trying to, but I couldn't make my lips mind my thoughts. I fell back into the black blanket of my mind.

The second time I woke up, it was the middle of the night, the moonlight pouring in through the window, and my brother still beside me, sleeping on the next cot. It was quiet in the small infirmary, nothing like the snoring, coughing, and crying in the boys' dorm upstairs. Even the older boys would sometimes sniffle at night though nobody ever mentioned it come morning, unless he wanted to be blue about the face. My head still hurt, bad-it was a cannonball that I couldn't lift off my pillow.

My stomach started growling so loud I was afraid it might wake Zach. Then again, I knew better than that. At five years older than him, I always tried to protect Zach from the bullies in the neighborhood, and our own pa when he'd come home drunk and riled up. But if I could get Zach to sleep, he never heard a thing-not even Pa and Ma's legendary fights. And after Pa was gone, I don't guess Zach ever heard Momma cry at night either. A blessing.

Next time I woke it was finally morning. It was the gruel that woke me. Hard to believe that tasteless lump could bring me out of sleep, but I felt like I hadn't eaten in a year.

"Zach, can I have some of your mush?"

Zach looked so surprised to see me awake and asking for something I think I scared him.

"How long I been sleeping?"

"Almost four days now. I wondered if you were ever going to wake up." His voice kind of snagged when he said that last bit, and it made me feel real sorry. He started spooning up his breakfast for me like I was the baby brother. At thirteen it was hard to swallow my pride with the mush.

"I promise I won't do that again," I said, tasting the last bite.

"Owen, even you're not so much a fool to try that again, are you?" Zach asked with a smile.

"No, I mean, I won't brag on myself. It was my mouth that got me into this, not my legs."

"Nah, it was your stomach!" he said, laughing. I couldn't help but start laughing with him though it made my head hurt even worse.

"Well, I promise not to let my stomach talk through my mouth again."

"It's okay, Owen. I'm glad you're talking again."

The nurse walked in then, carrying a tray and her usual scowl. "Well, Owen Burke, I see you are back among the living." She said it without much enthusiasm.

"Yes," I answered, "though my head feels like it might rather be dead."

She came over and touched my forehead with her cool fingers. This reminded me of Momma, and I swallowed back tears from the memory though she probably thought it was the pain.

"Only a demon or an angel could save someone from a fall like that," she said, setting down the tray on a rickety table by the window. When she turned toward me I could feel her studying me, trying to figure out which one I was. Try as I might to be good, I weren't never associated with angels. She slipped her hand behind my neck and pushed me up in the bed. I felt like an axe split my face, square between the eyes. But the hot, bitter tea she made me sip soothed my dry mouth and soon enough took the pain back out the door with her.

It was another seven days before I could walk out of there on my own. Zach stayed with me the whole time, and he never reminded me again about my straw for brains. When they sent me back up to the boys' room, it seemed even sorrier than it had before. It smelled like dirty boys. And dirty boys are mean boys, there just ain't no way around it. My days of hot soup and a generous hunk of bread were over. Hunger returned like a landlord that ain't been paid.

A few days later Miss Eliza and Miss Jane came by to bring rag dolls to the new girls. For new boys, they brought pieces of penny candy, pressing them into their grubby hands. Those sisters didn't realize the bigger kids stole the candy as soon as their backs were turned. Zach and I always called Miss Eliza and Miss Jane the spinster sisters because they'd never been married, and because they were hard to tell apart with their matching gray hair and dresses. They worked at the orphanage for free most of their days, so we didn't call them that to their faces. They found Zach and me in the corner playing three-in-a-row with pebbles and sticks.

"Why, Owen, how wondrous to see you out of bed!" said Miss Eliza.

"Yes, ma'am."

"How are you feeling?" asked Miss Jane. I think it was Miss Jane-truth is I always got them confused. Like I said, they looked alike and even their smiles seemed to match their plain dresses.

"Better every day," I answered.

"Did they punish you, Owen, for that foolish stunt?" asked Miss Eliza.

"I had to scrub the floor in the boys' dorm." What I didn't mention was that Zach had done the lion's share of the work since my left arm wasn't worth much and the pain was still my companion every time I moved much.

"I hope you learned your lesson, then," Miss Eliza said, crossing her arms and staring down at me sternly.

"Yes'm. I don't reckon on trying to be a squirrel again anytime soon"

Zach laughed though the spinster sisters just pursed their lips as if they'd tasted something sour. Cracking jokes did not show enough regret. Zach said, "Now Owen's stuck in the dirt like a dog!"

"Or an ass!" I countered. "And about as smart."

With that, Zach really lost it. His eight-year-old laugh sounded more like a girl's giggle, and though he tried to swallow it, he just couldn't help himself.

Miss Jane coughed behind her white-gloved hand, obviously trying to stop this nonsense. "Well, how is your arm feeling?" she asked.

"Not at all," I answered, honest, trying to hold back my laughter.

"It's not hurting at all? Isn't that wondrous!" said Miss Eliza. Wondrous was a word Miss Eliza couldn't use enough.

"No. I mean, I can't feel it at all," I answered, and demonstrated by lifting my left arm above my head with my good hand and letting go. It fell like a piece of deadwood, landing on my lap.

"Oh, I see," she answered, and then glanced at Miss Jane.

"I'm sure it will get better with time," Miss Eliza said in a singsongy tone. The same voice my momma used to use whenever she lied to us about things getting better.

Chapter Three The next day Zach and I got word to report to the spinster sisters' cottage. They lived less than a mile from the Home for Destitute and Friendless Youth, and they spent a great many of their hours inside its brick walls. Once a month they invited two children to help them fold and bundle their abolitionist newspaper. I'd never been asked before, and though it was probably pity that got me the invitation, I didn't mind for the chance to taste freedom and perhaps cookies. It was rumored that cookies came with the job. I didn't know how much help I could be with one arm, but I wasn't going to mention that fact and lose Zach's and my chance for an excursion.

The sisters' house was a small three-room cottage, plain as a piece of bread. But you could tell they'd tried to make it look nice by fancying it up with lace curtains and lining the walkway with flowers. They didn't have much furniture except a shiny dining table with carved chairs. On it was the newsletter in fat stacks. Our job was to fold the newsletter into thirds, sort it into stacks of fifty, bind those with twine, and tag them with yellow cards marked with the name of the city they would be delivered to. Zach neatly printed the names of cities I only dreamed of visiting-Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and New York. And while he worked hard at the task, I mainly talked about what we might find in those far-flung places or spied on the boys playing a game of stickball across the street. When the sisters came back in with a tray of cookies, I felt guilty about how small my stack was compared to my brother's. Miss Eliza's disappointment in me was a fresh painting on her face.

When I tasted the cinnamon in the cookies, it reminded me of Momma, and it was hard to swallow the first bite. Momma had always made something with cinnamon to tempt us into studying our letters. She had dreamed of being a schoolteacher instead of a seamstress tied to her machine, and she loved to learn us all she could with whatever snatches of time she could find. Zach read as fine as the rich boys who attended school, but I could sound out most things if I took my time. It was hard to imagine that this time last year we were all still together. Lost in the flavor of home, I ended up eating five whole cookies without even thinking about it. Zach, always good, ate only three.

"Listen to this, Owen," Zach said, pointing to an ad in the paper I hadn't noticed. "Final Notice. Please bring donations of clothing, shoes, and outerwear to the orphanage. The orphan train will depart on March 12, 1853. That's next week!"

"That's thrilling, Zach. Used clothing."

"I don't care about the clothing, Owen, it's the train! The train is coming next week!"

"That train is just an orphanage on wheels." I didn't like Zach's constant talk about heading out West. I was sick of hearing about that train already.

"No! It's our chance to get out of an orphanage. To get into a real family again."

"We'll never have a real family again." It was a mean thing to say, and I saw his shoulders slump under my words. I don't know why I had to rip out his excitement, but I didn't want his hopes crushed again. Would someone really want us when our own momma didn't? It was hard to believe. I headed off to the kitchen area, hoping maybe the spinster sisters might offer me a bit of milk instead of the water I would ask for.

I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but when I heard them say Zach's name, I stopped cold in the doorway. They were washing and drying dishes out of a large basin.

"Zachary is such a beautiful child," said Miss Jane.

"He is sure to be adopted. His countenance is pure," Miss Eliza answered. "But we must face the facts about Owen." I slid to the side so they could not see me even if they turned from their task. What did she mean by face the facts about me?

"He is quite bold and rude," said Miss Jane.

"Nor does he have his brother's fine features," said Miss Eliza. I knew that she was referring to Zach's blond curls and blue eyes, which were just like our momma's. I had the darker skin, hair, and eyes of our pa.

"You know those older boys will be expected to earn their keep," Miss Eliza said. "One who can eat more than he can help will not find a home."

"I know. But it's not fair. They're orphans, not workhorses or slaves!" Miss Jane answered. You could tell it had been a topic they'd discussed before.

"Now, sister, you cannot compare slavery to the work that farm boys must do," Miss Eliza admonished.

"I know, I know. I just hate to think of our Zachary breaking his back out in those fields," said Miss Jane.

"He is not our Zachary, sister. And he would do well to know a decent father." Though Eliza was right about my father, it pained me to hear someone say it aloud.

"But what if no one adopts him because of Owen?"

"We shall cross that bridge if it appears," Miss Eliza answered.

"You mean when it appears. Because it surely will," said Miss Jane.

"Wouldn't it be wondrous to adopt them ourselves?" asked Miss Eliza.

"Don't be silly, sister. We don't know the first thing about raising a boy," Miss Jane answered.

"Well, at least we can volunteer for the orphan train and see for ourselves," Miss Eliza said, her voice sounding sad.

"It is the least we can do, sister," answered Miss Eliza.

I backed away silently and headed to the outhouse. My thoughts were a stew of emotion-hate for my father, shame for my worthless arm, anger at Momma. Worst of all, guilt bubbled to the top. I hated the words I'd heard from the spinster sisters, but I knew the cold truth of their words. Zach's only hope for a real family was without me.

Excerpted from The Floating Circus by TRACIE VAUCHN ZIMMER Copyright © 2008 by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has worked as a special education teacher and reading specialist. She is also the creator of more than 80 teacher's guides for numerous publishers (including Bloomsbury), and has published a book of poetry, Sketches from a Spy Tree, a NYPL Best Book. She lives in [Waxhaw, North Carolina.] www.tracievaughnzimmer.com

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has worked as a special education teacher and reading specialist. She is also the creator of more than 80 teacher's guides for numerous publishers (including Bloomsbury), and has published a book of poetry, Sketches from a Spy Tree, a NYPL Best Book. She lives in [Waxhaw, North Carolina.] www.tracievaughnzimmer.com

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The Floating Circus 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really love this book. It has such a great theme, and great details. I know there isn't going to be a sequel, but I'm going to ask anyway. Please write a sequel!!!!! (: Great book! Please write more books!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
it was a good book it kept your wanting to read more if they put a second book to it that would be great.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Twelve-year-old troublemaker Owen is so different from his little brother, Zach, that he knows Zach would stand a much greater chance of being adopted from the Orphan Train without him. When the train leaves Pittsburgh, Owen slips away and jumps, leaving his future to the winds.

Before the night is over, he finds himself invited aboard a circus boat by a kindly black man named Solomon...and nearly drowned in the river when the circus owner discovers Owen catching a show for free. Solomon convinces Hathaway, the owner, to let Owen stay aboard as Solomon's assistant in tending the animals and cleaning the boat. Thus, Owen becomes a hired hand on the River Palace.

Life in the circus isn't quite what Owen would have thought it would be, but it grows to become more of a home to him than the orphanage had ever been. From the misunderstood baby elephant, Little Bet, to Caleb, another boy on the boat who reminds him so much of Zach, Owen manages to find a place within his newfound family. But as the circus heads south towards New Orleans--a town plagued with yellow fever, bad storms, and people who think every black man is as good as a slave--Owen will need to decide where his heart and loyalties lie, and choose the road his life will travel.

Full of rich description in an exciting atmosphere and turbulent time in American history, Zimmer brings out a complete cast of very real characters and heart-wrenching situations. THE FLOATING CIRCUS is a masterful work to be enjoyed by anyone between the ages of 8 and 80.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
^~^ Adorrable!
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