Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

Long Road to the Circus

by Betsy Bird

illustrations by David Small

Long Road to the Circus

by Betsy Bird
illustrations by David Small

Reviewed November 27, 2021, from a library book.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 246 pages.
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Standout:
#4 Children's Fiction

What a delightful book! Set in 1920 in Burr Oak, Michigan, twelve-year-old Suzy of the legendary grip wants to find a way to escape the family farm and Burr Oak, where generations of her family always seem to come back.

When Suzy decides to follow no-good lazy Uncle Fred before dawn to find out what he’s up to, she’s surprised to discover he’s wrangling ostriches for a retired circus performer. They want to tire out the ostrich so it can be harnessed up to a surrey together with a horse for the town parade.

Then Suzy gets the bright idea that if she rides the ostrich instead of Uncle Fred, her boring summer will get a whole lot more interesting – and she can learn a skill that might get her out of town. Not every kid can ride an ostrich!

But it takes some negotiating and some clever planning to keep her parents allowing her to miss the morning chores. If they find out what she’s up to, she might even have to enlist the aid of her annoying older brother.

Here are some words from Suzy as she’s planning to follow Uncle Fred in the morning:

It takes true skill to delay doing your chores. And my impatient brother Bill simply had no idea how to do it right. He usually tried to skip out after breakfast to run and play with the baby lambs or the goats or whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing. But if Bill had taken pointers from Uncle Fred, like I did, he would have realized that the first rule of chore skipping is to skip breakfast too. ‘Cause once they’ve seen your face and weighed you down with food, you’re less fleet of foot. They’ll catch you before you can take two steps outdoors.

The second rule is to offer complete and utter bafflement when confronted. When Bill got collared in an attempted escape, he always just lied outright. I’d shake my head in wonder as he constructed some fabulous falsehood to cover up his crime, making it far worse for himself the further in he went. Uncle Fred took a much smarter tack. Whenever he’d return from wherever it was he’d been and my daddy started asking where he’d gone, Uncle Fred would have this look of complete bafflement on his face. Like he’d never even grown up on a farm or known how it worked. He’d offer some bland apologies to Daddy for inconveniencing him, then join everyone for lunch. Usually after that he’d go to work with the rest of the crew, working longer than the rest of them to make up his lost time, but next morning it would start all over again. He’d be gone before breakfast, Daddy swearing under his breath, the rest of us pretending not to notice, most of all Uncle Fred’s wife and baby.

Suzy’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through on every page, and it doesn’t take us long to be sure she’ll figure out how to ride an ostrich and also how to use that to ride away from Burr Oak some day.

David Small’s illustration style is perfect for gangly ostriches and add wonderfully to the spirit of the book. The page where Suzy first tries to ride an ostrich is especially delightful.

The back story of this book – appropriately told at the back – is also rather wonderful. Betsy Bird had a family story about her grandmother’s no-good uncle who skipped out on farm chores in Burr Oak, Michigan to visit a retired circus performer and learn tricks to teach the farm horses. That circus performer, Madame Marantette – who shows up in this book - really did set a world record by driving a surrey pulled by an ostrich and a horse together.

But the really crazy part of the back story is that illustrator David Small currently lives in the very same house where Madame Marantette lived and kept her horses and ostriches. When Betsy told him about her project, he thought it wasn’t so much a picture book as a novel, and we are all in his debt.

This book reads as a wonderful yarn about a girl looking to do outrageous things to make a name for herself. The fact that there’s a kernel of truth at its core makes it all the more fun.