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Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby
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's review
Mar 22, 2012

really liked it
Read in March, 2012

The story of a girl on the run in 1939.

Thirteen-year-old Portia Remini has been left behind over and over again, but this time, she's the one who's leaving. She's had enough of The Home, of being called a wayward girl, of Mister's dastardly deeds. And when her only friend suddenly dies and Portia's guilt weighs too much to bear, she decides it's time to run away.

When she meets up with a traveling sideshow, Portia collides with a world she has never known, a world that few people have seen up close, a world that will change Portia forever.

Reading Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby was like being lured to a sideshow with promises of never before seen oddities, teased until curiosity has reached its limit and only then are you allowed to view what lies beyond the curtain. Wonder Show took its time getting to what the synopsis and cover promised: a girl who runs away and joins the circus. Our heroine, Portia, first gets abandoned by both her parents, then ends up in a bleak Dickensian home for wayward girls. To cope with loneliness and harsh reality, Portia tells herself stories.

"Stories came easily to Portia. Lies came even more easily, and more often. The difference was in the purpose. The stories taught her to imagine places beyond where she was, and the lies kept her out of trouble. Mostly.


"She made the stories her own, chopped them up and clapped them back together in new formations, putting the enchanted princess in the loving embrace of a villainous wolf, marrying the charming prince to the wicked witch and giving them a brood of dwarfs to raise as their own."

Portia's love of adventures remains in the realm of imagination until the day she decides to run away from the home of wayward girls and the evil Mister who runs it. Hoping to find her missing father, she temporarily joins Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show. I found myself becoming impatient with the chapters preceding the circus, which were set in the home of wayward girls, and wondered how it fit in with the rest of the story.

Once Portia arrives at the circus, however, the novel came alive for me and I found myself absorbed in the inner workings of a sideshow. According to the author's notes in the back, many of the colorful circus characters were based on real people: conjoined twins, giants, a family of albinos, an armless woman who can throw knives with her feet. The brief chapters, as told from the different points of view of the "human oddities" Portia encountered, were the most appealing of the novel; I wished that there had been more of them with longer entries. Portia's search for her missing father and striving for independence did not absorb me as much as the stories of the circus "freaks" did. I could have actually done away with the whole home for wayward girls interlude and instead jumped straight into the fascinating world of the sideshow.

Rather than a middle grade The Night Circus, I would compare Wonder Show as Water for Elephants for the younger set; it shows the lurid, the wondrous, and the humanity of circus "freaks."

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