Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Circus: Reading Across Time - The Circus

CC Search - image source
In 10th grade I refused to read the last 3/4 of Gone With the Wind.  Had this novel not been followed immediately by Moby Dick, I would have foresworn much of American Literature entirely. Luckily, I moved on to a course called Humanities, which trapped me forever in the connections between literature, the arts, and history (it was taught by a team of three brilliant teachers - a unique experience in 1964). 

Come round to ELA under the new Common Core.  One way to read the standards is that texts for units of study need to be intertwined by theme but diverse by media.  Makes sense, if the goal is to develop critical evaluation and comparison skills. 

I am talking to HS teachers here, but also keeping in mind the two 8th grade girl-readers who sparked my interest in this topic.  The Topic is The Circus, specifically the American circus.

I grew up in the Midwest, but did  not see a circus until we moved to NJ.  I did not see a sideshow until "Alive, alive, alive" beckoned me at the Topsham Fair (Topsham, Maine) 30 years later.  Nonetheless, I purchased circus posters to plaster my walls in college. The Big Apple Circus and the Cirque du Soleil are favorite memories. For years I could sing every song from Carousel and Carnival.  There is definitely something about the circus.

That something was piqued by a student asking me to read a new novel called The Night Circus.  I reviewed it quickly, then told her that I would read with her if she would read Bradbury.  That was the beginning.

Exploring interconnected texts in order to pique my two young readers, I have discovered a unit.  It is on the strange side.  Definitely sexy, horrific, grotesque, hormonal, brutal, and confusing.  Just right, I judge, for today's kids. Perfect to put under the Humanities flag and use to address the CCSS.

Essential Questions
  • Historical: How does the development of the circus as entertainment mirror changes in a culture?  (focus on the American circus timeline)
  • Literature & Media: How does the circus serve as metaphor(s) for the human condition?  How does this metaphor play out in different media? 
  • Personal: What is the allure of the circus?  What serves as the circus in your life?  How do you interact with it? 
Core Fiction

The Circus of Dr. Lao - Charles G. Finney (1935)
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury (1962) - also available as a graphic novel
Le Cirque de Magie - Marsha A. Moore (2011) - short story - Amazon $.99 download for Kindle
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern (2011) -
  • Review - New York Times
  • Review - The Guardian
  • Review - Paste Magazine - with comparisons to Harry Potter
Core children's fiction:
  • Circus Ship - Chris Van Dusen - picture book (2009)
  • If I Ran the Circus - Dr. Seuss - picture book (1956)
  • Lowly Worm Joins the Circus - Richard Scarry (1998)
  • Mr. Galliano's Circus (1938) OR The Circus of Adventure (1952) - Enid Blyton
  • Cirque du Freak: a living nightmare (#1 in series) - Darren Shan   
Core informational text:
  • "Step Right Up" - History Magazine
  • "Night at the Circus" - Cirque du Soleil - The New Yorker 
  • "Circus Stories" - Circus Unlimited - interviews, etc. with performers
  • Circus and Carnival Ballyhoo: Sideshow Freaks, Jabbers and Blade Box Queens - A.W. Stencell (2010)
  • The Circus Book - Jando and Daniel (2010)
Core films and media: (all but the first two available from
  • American Memory - The First Circus (1921) - you want Part 2, MPEG format - online
  • Circus Dreams - purchase at site - true story of teen circus
  • The Greatest Show on Earth - DVD (1956)
  • Carnival - Original cast recording - CD (1961)
  • The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao - DVD (1963)
  • Circus of Fear - DVD (1967)
  • Dr Who - Carnival of Monsters - DVD of TV series (1975) 
  • The Funhouse - DVD (1981 - horror)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes - DVD (1983)
  • Carnivale - the complete first season - DVD (2003) - from TV series
  • Cirque du Freak: the vampire's assistant - DVD (2009)
Core visuals:
Core poetry:

ee cummings
 Damn everything but the circus!
. . . damn everything that is grim, dull,
motionless, unrisking, inward turning,
damn everything that won't get into the
circle, that won't enjoy, that won't throw
its heart into the tension, surprise, fear
and delight of the circus, the round
world, the full existence . . .

ee cummings
Buffalo Bill's

Vine McCasland

Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel
The Merry-Go-Round

Research ideas:
  • Circus Maximus and Roman circus (amphitheaters)
  • Wild West Shows
  • Great American circuses and circus acts
  • Treatment of sideshow and circus actors (human and animal)
  • Clowns - fearful or funny?
  • Depression-era circus in America (mid-West)
  • Horror as a post a WWII genre
  • Carousel and Carnival - circus in the musical theater 
  • Concept: media circus, merry-go-round 
Related short stories:
  • Bradbury:  "Hail and Farewell" and "The Playground" (Kindle download)
Student projects:  There are so many options, in all media formats, creative and analytical, that I would let the students come up with something independently.  Responses will probably be influenced by personal discoveries of circus metaphor (longing, love, fear, death, entrapment, control, evil, laughter, etc.)  Essays addressing the essential questions, of course, would be appropriate.

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