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The Floating Circus

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  139 Ratings  ·  42 Reviews
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 yel ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published August 1st 2008 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens (first published July 22nd 2008)
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Jennifer Wardrip
Reviewed by Allison Fraclose for

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 discove
Jul 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
The Floating Circus is one of those great books that will appeal to both kids ad adults. I often hear kids complain that literary books are 'so boring'. Although The Floating Circus might be considered literary, it is in no way boring. The author keeps the story moving forward giving it definate kid-appeal.

I also felt it was a great example of how historical fiction doesn't just have to be about girls in corsettes.

The story takes place in the United States circa 1850, when circuses traveled fro
Amber Neighbors
Nov 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The floating circus is a charming historical fiction, painting a colorful picture of a time in history when the circus world became an avenue of survival and acceptance for so many. This is a story of an orphan boy who leaves behind all that is familiar to assure that his brother will get adopted. When he is taken on as a stable boy to a grand floating circus, he encounters unlikely friends, life threatening dangers, and the enchanting but brutal world of the circus. His kindred relationship wit ...more
Aug 01, 2018 rated it liked it
I love reading about the circus, and that is the only reason I rated this book as high as I did. I enjoyed the research that went into writing this book, but ultimately that was also the downfall of this book. Things are just thrown at the reader without explanation. For example, Owen is at a hotel and there had been a yellow fever outbreak. Instead of Owen looking out the window and seeing the fire, or having one of the adults mention a fire, A sentence pops up out of nowhere that started somet ...more
Yazmin L.
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
When I first began reading this book, it immediately grasped my attention. I gained lots of emotions while reading. I laughed at some parts, was amazed just like Owen at some parts, cried, and even squished my face at the parts I found disturbing. I enjoyed Solomon's and Owens bond. I always looked forward to parts where they're having a conversation. What I truly enjoyed most from this book was imagining how each characters voice might of sound and look. This book gave a great imagery of how th ...more
Jun 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Becky by: Sarah Miller
Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn. 2008. The Floating Circus.

"I shoulda listened to my brother. Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin."

Owen and Zach, two brothers, two orphans from Pittsburgh. When we first meet Owen, he is getting ready to fall into some trouble. Dared to climb a tree to see if he could touch the roof of the orphanage, his attempt is brave but extremely foolish. Now he has lost the use of his left arm. When he overhears two elderly ladies--Miss Jane and Miss Eliz
Lisa Nocita
Jun 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: young-adult
The Floating Circus is the story of thirteen-year-old Owen Burke, an orphan living in Pennsylvania in the 1850's. His pa dead and his mother unable to provide, Owen and his younger brother Zach are placed in the care of the Home for Destitute and Friendless Youth. When Owen overhears a conversation about Zach's options for adoption, he realizes that he is a liability to Zach and determines to help his brother find a new home even it means leaving him to do so. Owen serendipitously finds his way ...more
I have really mixed feelings about this book. While I enjoyed it, liked the main character, had fun reading about a floating, traveling circus, and think the author writes well, I'm a tad uneasy about the racial politics of the book. I get tired of white authors creating African American characters whose purpose is to be somewhat of a "simple sage" imparting knowledge and guiding the white protagonist to become a better person (The Secret Life of Bees, I'm looking at you). While it could be argu ...more
Aug 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 01, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Gr. 5 and up
Twelve-year-old Owen slips off the orphan train, leaving his younger brother alone because he believes Zachary will stand a better chance of adoption without him. Without any notion of what he will do next, Owen is carried with a crowd to the riverfront where a floating circus has arrived. After he is thrown overboard for not having a ticket, he is rescued by Solomon, a black circus worker who convinces the owner that Owen can stay with him and help with the animals. So begins a relationship whi ...more
Mar 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: young-adult
*possible spoilers This historical fiction has some wonderful descriptive language - the similes that the main character, Owen, uses are worth a look in itself. The author aptly uses the language of a boy growing up as the story is narrated - it's not overdone, it draws you into his thoughts.
The riverboat circus was based on a real one, and many of the details in the book are historically-based, and those details make the story better. Some readers may not be totally happy with the ending, but I
Hoover Public Library Kids and Teens
I liked this book for so many reasons. I enjoyed the historical details that were woven into the story. Obviously, the reader is exposed to life on a circus riverboat. In addition, there is information about the horrors of slavery, orphanages, and the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1850's. Owen, a thirteen year old boy, experiences all of these things and more. In the process he learns understanding and forgiveness. He also learns that if you are fortunate enough to be free, your choices an ...more
Dec 14, 2010 rated it really liked it

The pre-Civil War world that twelve year old Owen finds himself in, after he breaks his his ties with the Pittsburgh orphanage, is unfriendly and foreboding; not much different from his early years with his family. Chance steers Owen into a job as an assistant stable hand for a circus situated on a riverboat. Life here has its own challenges, but, under the patient tutelage of the ex-slave who manages the stables, Owen comes to understand some of the challenges his parents faced, as well as catc
Feb 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-children
I liked this book for so many reasons. I enjoyed the historical details that were woven into the story. Obviously, the reader is exposed to life on a circus riverboat. In addition, there is information about the horrors of slavery, orphanages, and the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1850's. Owen, a thirteen year old boy, experiences all of these things and more. In the process he learns understanding and forgiveness. He also learns that if you are fortunate enough to be free, your choices an ...more
Jan 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Disclaimer: I know Tracie well, so there's that whole trying-hard-not-to-be-biased thing as I review this book. But I'm a sucker for orphan stories in general, and I loved the vivid setting of the circus world, so I was a happy girl as I read. Most impressive to me was the knowledge that up until now, Tracie's only written poetry and novels-in-verse...yet she handled prose so deftly that you'd never have know it was a complete change of approach for her. I do so very much love when authors just ...more
Amber Neighbors
Jun 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
I expected this book to be "all fluff." I was pleasantly surprised to find it historically vivid and complex. I'm a huge fan of circus culture and this novel is just the right amount of intriguing. Following an orphaned boy on his journey with the circus as he discovers his own beliefs, reasons, and self in a time of abolitionists, abandonment, and unlikely friends- this book is a tip of the hat to the amazing, wonderful, world of the floating circuses of the 1800's.

My only criticism is the abr
In 1850, thirteen-year-old Owen makes a difficult choice to abandon his brother on an Orphan Train, in hopes that he will be adopted by a good family, and shortly thereafter finds himself working aboard a circus ship. An interesting look at the circus' of the time. Might upset sensitive children with a couple of brutal scenes involving animals. An enjoyable book, but nothing special. It reads like a "Water For Elephants" for a younger audience. An appended authors note explains her real life ins ...more
Oct 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: children-s-books
In this 2011 Sequoyah nominee, Owen leaves the orphan train at the last minute to spare his little brother a life of having a "disabled" sibling tag along. Owen's arm becomes useless after a tree-climbing accident.

Owen stumbles, hungry and homeless, upon the River Palace, a floating circus barge. After being befriended by a kind black man who cleans up after the animals, Owen begins his new life as an employee.

There is action, adventure, drama, loss, and love in this quick read.
Sep 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: tweens and circus fans of all ages
This good old-fashioned adventure novel will appeal equally to boys and girls as well as to circus fans of all ages. Readers will instantly empathize with Owen, a twelve-year-old escapee from an orphanage, as he learns the ropes of life aboard The River Palace, a circus ship. The vivid cast of characters includes an escaped slave, Siamese twins, and a misunderstood elephant, Little Bets. Amazing! Spectacular! Un-put-downable!
Jun 28, 2013 rated it it was ok
It started off promising and makes a good effort to both appeal to children and maintain a decent level of historical attributes, but ultimately it tries too hard to reach a message without any compelling attributes behind it. In the end, the message ultimately seems to be lost in the search for an ending reaches some kind of catharsis. However, the ending ultimately just leaves the reader confused as to the ultimate message.
Feb 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Another JF book I picked up in the kids section of the library, but I really enjoyed this historical fiction about an lame armed orphan boy that joins the circus. Well he cleans up after the animals. I enjoyed it, and it made me think a lot about the immense blessing of being able to read and write. I don't think anything gives more freedom that literacy. I'm grateful I have always been able to take for granted those blessings. A good book for 10 year olds.
Mrs. Hassig
Jan 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a very difficult book to review. I couldn't put it down but it made me so sad sometimes that I had to walk away from it. There were scenes in this book that were very graphic and if you love animals like I do they were hard to imagine. It's an historical fiction story that includes not only slavery but the Orphan Train. Very heavy and not for everybody. I would recommend this book on a person to person basis. It's also one of this year's William Allen White nominees.
Jul 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: historical, j, realistic
Orphan boy finds himself working on a floating circus on the Mississippi. One recurring theme is slavery and racism, as the person who takes the boy under his wing is a freed black man. Boy has to make some very hard choices at the end.
This is tough stuff. The boy has to decide how he fits in the world. But the circus setting makes it fun at the same time, and it feels like a gentle read, even with the crazy awful themes. Good historical fiction 5th-6th booktalk.
Judy Desetti
Set in the 1850's, two orphans are going to be sent from an orphanage in Pittsburgh to the west on the orphan train. One, Owen decides his brother has a better chance for finding a family without him so he runs away. He befriends a black man and finds himself a part of the work crew on a floating circus.

I enjoyed this read. It reminded me of another book I enjoyed reading, Water for Elephants,an adult fiction novel. Water for Elephants also dealt with life among the circus people.
Mary Ann
Nov 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
This story deals with a young boy during the Orphan Train era, though this boy takes off and becomes part of a floating circus, which I never knew existed. It deals with relationships between unlikely people, and what happens because of the relationships. A worthwhile read for upper elementary and middle school students.
May 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is an intermediate level children's book, so my review reflects that. It reminded me of Water for Elephants, but definitely for a younger reader. I love the main character, an orphan, who has an adventurous spirit and kind heart. The plot includes everything from an orphan train to a runaway slave. Also, I am fascinated by the details of the circus life in the 1850s.
Anita Prince
Sep 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Owen realizes that his brother, Zach, will have a better chance being adopted from the orphanage where they live if he is not burdened by an older brother. So Owen runs away and joins the River Palace, a floating circus. Here he finds a home and a new family that includes Solomon, a freed slave, and Caleb, the printer's son.
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book by a Miami grad, former Ross Middle School teacher, and my former student. Tracie's writing is amazing: vivid, moving, well researched, and great story-telling. I was involved from the first page to the last. She makes her characters live and breathe.
Apr 13, 2009 rated it it was ok
This book was like Billy Creekmore, Part II. Orphanage, joining a circus, finding family. The pacing was slow and haphazard, the writing was fair at best, full of the “new clichés”: “I boarded [the boat:] with a heavy rock for a heart” (162). Really, what 13-year old boy would think this way?
Mar 31, 2009 rated it really liked it
One of those children's books that works for adults, too.

Enjoyed the point of view of the narrator and the development of his character.

I had no idea that there really such things as circuses on boats; very interesting and informative.
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