Just up the road from where we live, elephants used to frolic in the sea. How cool it would it be to see that! Of course, we would have to travel in time back to the 1880s, when P.T. Barnum’s circus wintered in Bridgeport, CT, a city on the Long Island Sound and Barnum's home base.
I learned that about the circus and much more from Candace Fleming’s fascinating, photo-filled biography The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum, written for children aged nine and older.
Barnum (1810-1891) came to circus-owning relatively late in life. Setting the stage, so to speak, was his earlier American Museum, on lower Broadway in New York, with its “grand saloons” populated by mummies, artifacts, art works, live exotic animals, skeletons, and people like the Swiss Bearded Lady, the Highland Mammoth Boys, and little Tom Thumb. Fleming carefully situates the use of “human curiosities” in its historical context; she also notes that the performers’ salaries were “generous” for their era.
Barnum was no stranger to doing whatever it took to draw in people to his various entertainments; one whole chapter is called “Humbug!” The “real-life” Feejee Mermaid was an example of Barnum’s penchant for fooling his audiences. His family also paid a high price for his show-biz life; his daughters barely saw him when they were growing up.
The Great and Only Barnum would be a marvelous addition to the home or classroom library, especially for nonfiction, biography, and circus fans; a fourth-grade student called it "amazing" over at her teacher's blog Educating Alice.
Barnum’s legacy carries on in other ways, too: the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performs at Bridgeport's Arena at Harbor Yard, October 29th-November 1st.
The Great and Only Barnum was nominated in the Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction category of the 2009 Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards (the Cybils).
Fleming, Candace. The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0375945977.