When the Circus Came to Town

When the Circus Came to Town

by Laurence Yep, Suling Wang

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Ursula always wanted to see the circus. That is, until she caught smallpox. Now all she wants is to hide her scarred face from everyone. But Ah Sam, her parents' Chinese cook, has other ideas.

One day Ah Sam surprises Ursula by bringing a circus to town, but there's one problem-there's no music. Ursula is the only one who can play the harmonica, but that means


Ursula always wanted to see the circus. That is, until she caught smallpox. Now all she wants is to hide her scarred face from everyone. But Ah Sam, her parents' Chinese cook, has other ideas.

One day Ah Sam surprises Ursula by bringing a circus to town, but there's one problem-there's no music. Ursula is the only one who can play the harmonica, but that means she'll have to go outside and face the world again. Will Ursula save the circus or will she hide forever?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Yep leaves his oft-visited literary stomping grounds of San Francisco's Chinatown in this heartwarming historical tale based on real events. Ursula loves living in tiny Whistle, Mont., or what her Pa calls the Back of Beyond. She helps her parents run the stagecoach station, roams the wild hills and, after reading a penny dreadful that a stagecoach passenger leaves behind, invents a rollicking pirate adventure game with her friends. But everything changes after smallpox leaves her face deeply scarred. She retreats to her room: "Pirate Ursula was dead now. There was only Monster Ursula, and Monster Ursula did not go outside." When her parents hire a Chinese cook, he and Ursula find they share a sense of isolation, and gradually they become friends. Eventually, Ah Sam succeeds in coaxing Ursula out of her self-imposed exile when he invites his cousins to stage a circus. Ursula returns the favor: after a blizzard scuttles Ah Sam's plans to spend Chinese New Year in San Francisco, she rallies the whole town to plan an elaborate celebration of that holiday. Bolstered by themes of compassion, community and tolerance, this story is among Yep's most assured. With dry humor and a keen ear for dialogue, the author includes deft characterizations and offers a window onto Asian-American history and culture. Wang, who illustrated Yep's The Magic Paintbrush, contributes detailed b&w drawings that underscore the volume's more serious themes. Ages 8-10. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
This two-time Newbery Honor author has used an actual memoir from 19th-century Montana to weave a tale of two who see themselves as outcasts--nine-year-old Ursula and Chinese cook, Ah Sam. Young Ursula is a smallpox survivor, but her face still shows embarrassing scars. Since Ah Sam is not a U.S. citizen, others treat him as though he doesn't "belong." The two become fast friends at the stagecoach station Ursula's parents run in Whistle, MT, where Ah Sam makes "the fluffiest pancakes in the West." When he succeeds in bringing a longed-for circus to his young friend, she forgets herself long enough to become a happy and useful part of it--and then organizes her own version of a snowbound Chinese New Year celebration to give him in return. Black-and-white drawings add the perfect nostalgic touch, and the inclusion of printed music and words to Ursula's favorite song, "Sweet and Low," introduces the dimension of sound into the story. Its focus on creating community and then feeling you belong to it is sorely needed in our multicultural, often dysfunctional and divided society. Having read the book, kids will look at their families and neighborhoods with new eyes and see them as places where respect and imagination work their own three-ring magic. 2002, HarperCollins Children's Books, $14.95 and $14.89. Ages 8 to 10. Reviewer: Earlene Viano
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-Ten-year-old "Pirate Ursula" is the fearless leader of her playmates, but after she contracts smallpox and is left with significant facial scarring, she sees herself as "Monster Ursula." She becomes a recluse, never leaving her family's stagecoach station in early 20th-century Whistle, MT. Ursula is a very human child surrounded by mostly sympathetic adults. Through the efforts of the new Chinese cook, Ah Sam, she eventually finds the courage to rediscover Pirate Ursula. He and his family of acrobats help to heal not just the girl, but also the racial divides in Whistle, and Ursula finally understands that it is what is inside a person that matters most. Touches of humor and whimsy counter the darkness she feels about herself. That these events are based on fact enables readers to accept the fairly quick turnaround in the villagers' racist attitudes. Wang's evocative illustrations add to the flavor of this quick, absorbing read.-B. Allison Gray, South Country Library, Bellport, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A story taken from real life provides the foundation for a tale of healing through human interconnection. Ursula is a ten-year-old girl with a big imagination and a love for her small Montana town, finding enough happy magic at home by leading her pirate crew in fanciful adventures in between helping her Pa at his stagecoach station. But when she survives a smallpox scare only to be left with a pitted face, vanity replaces her ebullient spirit and she won't leave her room. Pa hires Ah Sam, a Chinese cook, to help feed the passengers when the stages arrive. Her "curiosity bump" is larger than her prejudice against him, and the two soon find they share a common loneliness as well as a common love of the circus. She begins once again to help in the kitchen, although she still won't show her face outdoors. She faces a turning point, however, when a mean-spirited stage passenger harasses Ah Sam, who cannot retaliate because of state law. Ursula decides she must cheer up the now ashamed cook, realizing that they all share what Indian Tom calls "the mark" of outsiders. One kindness leads to another as Ah Sam's circus relatives arrive to entertain the town with their special magic while Ursula is enlisted to back them up with music. Yep (Newbery Honor, Dragon's Gate, 1994), has applied his considerable skills to embellish a true story into a moving parable of how people help each other overcome suffering. The simple plot uses perfectly believable characterizations to discuss deceptively complex emotions and issues for those who would mine its lessons, but Ursula's own story of healing is rewarding enough for those who read from the younger child's point of view. (Fiction. 8-10)
“Wang’s black-and-white illustrations, scattered throughout, are soft-textured and quietly expressive. ”
ALA Booklist
“Yep has based his novel on a true story, and his writing is, by turns, direct, humorous, and poignant.”
The Washington Post
“A bittersweet story, written with characteristic grace.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.25(d)
Age Range:
8 - 10 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Back of Beyond

I live at the Back of Beyond. At least that's what Pa calls it. Folks who don't know any better call it Whistle. That's because when someone rides through town, it's gone between the pucker and the first note of the whistle.

When I was no bigger than a wink, Pa took me piggyback out of Whistle. On his shoulders I felt a mile high.

His legs seemed so long that he crossed a hill in one stride. And his shadow seemed to sweep right out of Montana and straight across a thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean.

Finally he stopped. �Look at those hills in the badlands, Sugar. They look just like melted candy. And the river forgets its way and gets lost. There's magic all around us because we live at the Back of Beyond.�

�The Back of Beyond,� I repeated slowly.

�In the winter the snow only comes up to my waist, but it comes all at once. And look at that sky. There's nothing between us and Heaven.�

I wrapped my arms around his forehead and leaned back even more. The sky was so blue that it made me ache inside, and so big and deep that there was no end to it.

You couldn't get me to live anywhere else -- not for a thousand dollars. Not for ten thousand. There was always something to keep me hopping. We ran a stagecoach station, so there were horses to tend. I never gave them names though or got too friendly with them. They could be gone with the next stagecoach.

And when a stagecoach came in, didn't we jump! There were a hundred things for a body to do, and all of them had to be done at once. Sometimes I helped Pa change the horses. Sometimes I helped him load and unloadpackages. A lot of times I helped Ma serve meals to the passengers.

When chores were done, I could walk through a meadow. After a rain was best, because the sage smelled the freshest. Or I'd give an ear to the larks in the meadows along the rivers. Or in the spring I could pick lupines until my arms ached.

And there were always stories to read. My teacher, Miss Hardy, had all these books. By the time I was nine, I'd read every one.

But all my best friend, Susie, could talk about was the Little Ladies of Boston series. Susie was a year older than me. She'd read them and sigh. �I can't wait to visit my grandmother some year. She says I can stay the whole summer in Boston. They got a park with a real carousel. Then I'll get to do everything like the Little Ladies. Not like here. There's nothing to do in Whistle.�

Susie's grandmother always sent her the latest dresses and toys. So Susie showed off a little too much sometimes.

I'd read the Little Ladies books too, and all the girls did was wear lots of clothes and drink tea. So I just shrugged. �You can't do anything but be polite and say �Yes, ma'am' and �No, ma'am.' And it's please this and please that. And you have to sit up straight all day. It sounds more like jail to me -- except in jail you get to scratch when you itch.�

�How you talk, Ursula,� Susie said. �They don't wear pretty dresses in jail.�

�No, because it's too hot in the summer. They dress convicts sensible in just a shirt and pants,� I said. �There, I got you!�

�I can't talk to a person who's got no sense,� Susie said, and went off in a huff.

I was smarting, though, from the things she had said about our town. So later, when I went for a walk with Pa, I asked him if he would like to live in Boston.

He shook his head. �Not for a million dollars, Sugar. Everybody locks their doors there. And everyone's a stranger who wouldn't give you the time of day.�

�Susie says they got all these museums,� I said.

He shook his head even harder. �And they plant those museums and houses so close to one another that they can hardly see the sky. A gopher's got a better view from his tunnel.�

�And they got all these fancy restaurants,� I said.

�And fancy prices, too. You can pay a month's wages there and come away hungry.� He patted his stomach. �Give me your ma's cooking anytime.�

I kicked at a rock. �So you like it here?�

�Rugged folk like rugged places,� Pa said.

I grabbed one of his suspenders and let it go with a whack. �Like you and Ma?�

Pa swept me up in his arms and whirled me round so fast that my head just about spun away. �And like you.�

Who needed a carousel when they could have Pa?

When the Circus Came to Town. Copyright � by Laurence Yep. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Laurence Yep is the acclaimed author of more than sixty books for young people and a winner of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. His illustrious list of novels includes the Newbery Honor Books Dragonwings and Dragon's Gate; The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee; and The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island, which he cowrote with his niece, Dr. Kathleen S. Yep, and was named a New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing" and a Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Book.

Mr. Yep grew up in San Francisco, where he was born. He attended Marquette University, graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and received his PhD from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He lives in Pacific Grove, California, with his wife, the writer Joanne Ryder.

Suling Wang has worked in illustration, animation, and multimedia design for several years. She lives in San Francisco, California.

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