The Floating Circus

The Floating Circus . Tracie Vaughn Zimmer;

Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, 2008


Grade Level: gr. 6-8


ISBN & Cost: 978-1599901855, $15.99

©2008 Bloomsbury Children's Books



When Owen's orphanage puts him and his younger brother Zach on an orphan train to the West, Owen ditches the train and sets out on his own, figuring his brother has a better chance of being adopted by himself. Owen finds work on a circus boat, cleaning up after the animals. Just as he begins to build a sense of family with a freed slave named Solomon, a friend named Caleb and a baby elephant named Little Bet, disaster strikes, the boat is destroyed, and Owen must find a way to survive.


General Review: 

This historical novel will enlighten readers about a little-studied aspect of American history, the circus ships that traveled up and down the Mississippi River during the middle of the 19 th Century. Zimmer gives readers plenty to consider and discuss, including social issues like slavery, child labor and animal cruelty. But these “big ideas” are balanced out by a story that is fundamentally about one boy trying to survive on his own, which provides a human gateway into the larger issues.



Abandoned children -- Juvenile fiction.; Circus -- Juvenile fiction. ; River boats -- Juvenile fiction. ; Free African Americans -- Juvenile fiction. ; Yellow fever.


Author information: 

Something About the Author , vol. 169. 


Discussion Questions: (Standard 3; Benchmark 3)

  1. Because of his injury, Owen decides to desert his little brother on the orphan train and strike out on his own. What motivated Owen to make this decision? Is it a good decision in terms of the consequences he faces in the book? If you were in his position, what would you decide?
  2. Mendeley is a cruel elephant trainer, and in the end, pays for his cruelty with his life. How will Owen be different in training Little Bet? Compare and contrast the two training styles and discuss how one is better than the other.


  1. Owen considers himself lonely and friendless. Examine the relationships Owen has in the book—with Zach, with Solomon, with Caleb, with Little Bet. What can you tell about Owen's character by the way he interacts with others? Would he make a good friend for you?
  2. The freaks earn a living by displaying their differences to others, yet when Owen sees them eating a meal together, he forgets their oddities and notes that they seem like a family. What allowed this change in perspective? Can you think of examples when there was more to a person or people than it seemed at first glance?



Also, the author's website includes discussion questions under the “For Teachers” link:


•  During the 1850s, most American children worked long days. Have students research the types of work children did during this period, and then write job descriptions for various positions. Have students discuss the pros and cons of various jobs. To extend this activity, bring a copy of Zimmer's book Steady Hands: Poems About Work into the classroom. Ask students to browse the book for contemporary jobs they might like to have and compare and contrast these modern-day jobs with the options available to 19 th -Century children. (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)

•  Have students research the advent of child labor laws. Hold a debate as to whether labor laws were a good idea and whether they were stringent enough from the start. (Standard 2, Benchmark 2)

•  Using a blank map of the United States, have students track Owen's journey, labeling all the places named. Have them research an estimated number of miles he travels during the story. (Standard 3, Benchmark 4)

•  Ask students to write a future chapter of the book. They might imagine him on Dan Rice's circus boat, training and performing with Little Bet. Or they might catch up with Owen just as he finds Solomon and begins to set him free. Or maybe they see him visiting the spinster sisters and reuniting with his younger brother Zach. (Standard 8, Benchmark 2)

•  In her Author's Note, Zimmer recommends a visit to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Have students research the museum using its website ( ) and plan a trip to the museum, including a budget and an itinerary. (Standard 3, Benchmark 1)



The author's website includes project ideas under the “For Teachers” link:


Similar Books for Further Reading

•  The Freedom of Jenny by Julie Burtinshaw

•  Nobody's Boy by Jennifer Fleischner

•  Tomorrow, the River by Dianne E. Gray
Come Morning by Leslie D. Guccione

•  Children of the Orphan Trains (nonfiction) by Holly Littlefield

•  Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy

•  Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince