8 Books about Circuses, Carnivals, and Travelling Shows
A book list by Onset & Rime.
Circuses and carnivals have been a point of fascination for people throughout history. Some are in awe of the rides and exhibits, some are appalled by the treatment of workers and animals, while others are torn between the two feelings. The books in this list capture the magic, mystery, and dark history of circuses, for those times when you want to escape into a world of wonder.
A Note: Content warnings have been provided where appropriate. Highlight the "invisible" text beside the content warning label to see. Content warnings are not value statements about the books or judgements about the inclusion of any particular content. They are there to give you a heads up on what to be prepared for so you can choose if and/or when a book is right for you.
1) THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
An atmospheric story of magic, wonder, and love.
From the publisher: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.”
Genre(s): fantasy, historical fiction
Content Warnings: child abuse, suicide
2) SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury
It’s autumn, and the carnival has come to town, but beware: entering may cost more than just the price of a ticket.
Neighbors Will and Jim, two young boys whose birthdays fall on either side of Halloween, are fascinated that the carnival arrives out of season in the middle of the night, offering rides and sideshows with hidden horrors. One of the proprietors can adjust the carousel to change his age; the other, Mr. Dark, is an illustrated man whose body art has strange powers. When Will’s father realizes the true insidious nature of the carnival, it takes the wits of both father and son to end the carnival’s predatory cycle of dread.
From the publisher: “For those who still dream and remember, for those yet to experience the hypnotic power of its dark poetry, step inside. The show is about to begin. Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. The carnival rolls in sometime after midnight, ushering in Halloween a week early. A calliope’s shrill siren song beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. Two boys will discover the secret of its smoke, mazes, and mirrors; two friends who will soon know all too well the heavy cost of wishes…and the stuff of nightmares.”
Genre(s): sci-fi/fantasy, horror
Content Warnings: racial slurs, racism
3) STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
“Set in the days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.”
From the publisher: “One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.”
Genre(s): speculative fiction, dystopian
Content Warnings: ableism, domestic abuse, pedophilia, rape (mentioned), suicide, religious radicalism
4) JOHANNES CABAL THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L. Howard
“A charmingly gothic, fiendishly funny Faustian tale about a brilliant scientist who makes a deal with the Devil, twice.”
From the publisher: “Johannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. This time for real. Accepting the bargain, Jonathan is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task. With little time to waste, Johannes raises a motley crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire to help him run his nefarious road show, resulting in mayhem at every turn.”
Content Warnings: infanticide
5) HARLEY IN THE SKY by Akemi Dawn Bowman
“[A] heart-wrenching, hopeful contemporary novel about a multiracial teen who risks it all to follow her dreams by joining the circus”
From the publisher: “Harley Milano has dreamed of being a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her soul that she could be up there herself one day.
After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion and collaboration. But at the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams."
Genre(s): contemporary, young adult
Content Warnings: suicidal ideation
6) CHURCH OF MARVELS by Leslie Parry
“Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger.”
From the publisher: “New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her.
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both.
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold.”
Genre(s): historical fiction, mystery
Content Warnings: ableism, body horror, physical and mental abuse, transphobia, forced institutionalization, body shaming
7) THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS by Alice Hoffman
“[A] … novel about the electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.”
From the publisher: “Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River. The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.”
Genre(s): historical fiction
Content Warnings: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, sexual assault, animal cruelty/death, misogyny, pedophilia, antisemitism, forced institutionalization
8) JOYLAND by Stephen King
A novel that is part nostalgic coming-of-age story, part suspenseful murder mystery.
From the publisher: “Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.”
Genre(s): mystery, horror
Content Warnings: ableism, racism, sexism, suicidal ideation, gore, death of a child