I saw reviews comparing Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and cynically thought it wasn’t possible…but now I think that wasn’t high enough praise. (I would add Mary Poppins to that list of comps.)
Circus Mirandus is charming, bittersweet, and timeless.
A shy boy, a dying grandfather, a mean aunt, and a magical circus – in a bare list those ingredients sound standard enough for middle grade fare, but in Ms. Beasley’s hands they are translated into lyrical prose.
As I was swept into the world of Micah and Ephraim Tuttle, I was most struck by the subtly of her characters and the emotions at play. There’s a lot of heavy stuff here – death, bitterness, absent parents, cruel selfishness – but she paints with such a soft palette that I didn’t realize how deeply I was moved until I was a puddle of emotion by the end of the book.
This slow progression works because Ms. Beasley tells the story in layers, alternating between Micah’s story in the present and his grandfather Ephraim’s story in the past. She also gives a whiff of the ending right at the beginning, but then most of the book is spent unfolding how that became the ending (and is it really the ending?). i.e. [SPOILERS]: Micah knows the Lightbender gave his grandfather a miracle and thinks it will save his life, but then we learn over the course of the book that 1) his grandfather isn’t selfish enough to ask for that and 2) the Lightbender can’t cheat death anyway, so 3) Micah is the one who will benefit from the miracle. << It’s a less visceral approach to conveying emotions, but it’s a slow burn that lingers far longer and packs one hell of a punch.
Ms. Beasley also keeps the book both firmly in the present day without feeling dated. Nothing is less magical than an iPhone intruding into a story (ironic, seeing as how many wonderful things you can do on a phone now, but it’s the biggest mood-killer in a story for me). Micah has the common trials of every kid – school, projects due, making new friends – but also a unique, generational hobby in knot-tying. I especially loved this aspect of Micah’s character because it tied him to the past through a skill his grandfather taught him, and it carried him into his future by [SPOILER] manifesting the magic in his nature.<< But the story is also not Awkwardly Amish and references using computers for research and McDonalds. (And perhaps therein lies the trick – keep it oblique!)
I feel like I need more time to keep digesting why I enjoyed this book so much, and it certainly deserves another read soon. I borrowed the e-book from the library but will definitely buy a hardcopy. Of all the books I’ve read in the past year, this one is certainly the most mirandus.