In the past, a type of picture book that I hadn't really appreciated is the wordless picture book, because all books need words, right? It wasn't till a required staff development with an amazing Virginia Beach Reading Specialist, Beth Estill, that I saw the beauty and purpose of a book with no words. To me Sidewalk Circus is the perfect example of a wordless picture book. It has a simple story line and the pictures allow your imagination to take over.
The story line of Sidewalk Circus is very short and sweet; basically a young girl is waiting for the bus in a busy city. Sounds a little boring and not very complex, however Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes present it in such a way that you keep going back and "rereading" the story. As soon as you open the book the title page tells you that the "World-Renowned ...Garibaldi Circus!!!!" is coming soon. A street scene opens the story with men working, people waiting for the bus, and hardly noticeable is a young girl approaching the bus stop. It's just a plain ordinary city street. However, many first time readers would miss it, but the workman in the center of the right page has a shadow that doesn't quite match...his shadow is a ring leader.
The young girl joins the people at the bus stop and begins her wait for the bus all the while watching the activity on the street. A construction worker walking on a steel beam, a butcher carrying a side of beef, teenage boys riding skateboards, a chief flipping pancakes, a dentist working on a patient, painters on a ladder, and some window washers make up the busy activity on the street. Finally the bus arrives and the young girl gets on leaving the street scene behind. But as the bus pulls away a young boy approaches the bus stop and the circus adventures continue. You wonder if the circus magic will continue for him.
The illustrations are what gives this story its complexity. Even the cover of the book alludes that there is more to this story. The cover is a full bleed with a simple workman with a bigger than life magical ring leader shadow. The fact that the title is located in the bottom corner and hardly noticeable makes you aware that words aren't the important part of this story. The shadowy figures on the end papers continue the theme of the circus and that imagines are going to play a huge part of this story.
The first pages of the story are a full bleed with the reader looking down on a city street scene, and a diagonal street curb running for one side of the page to another. It gives you the feeling that you are an observer to a story that is about to unfold, but not in the normal way. The illustrator uses light to draw your eye to the stretching workman and his magical shadow. However you have to be looking closely to notice the young girl approaching the bus stop; she seems to be just part of the scene. The next page the illustrator draws attention to the girls by having her in a yellow shirt with more light on her face and positioning her leaning into the scene. You are also viewing the scene from ground level and with a wider view of the buildings much like what the girl's view would be from the bus stop. Directly across from the bus stop are the most important words in the story "World-Renowned....Garibaldi Circus!!!!" Those simple words bring up all the special childhood feelings you had when the circus would come to your town. You immediately expect magic! As you turn the pages your eye is drawn to the young girl featured in oval windows framed in white. You are now seeing the street scene through her eyes. The first thing she notices is a construction worker carrying buckets while walking on a a steel beam high above the street. A banner below him advertising the the circus's famous tight rope walkers helps you make the connection. Each part of the street scene the girl sees becomes a circus act with a little help of magical shadows and the work man and his well placed circus posters. The butcher carrying meat becomes the strongman, the teenage boys on skateboards change into street clowns, the chief flipping pancakes is the juggler, the painter on the falling ladder is the man on stilts, and the dental patient becomes the infamous sword swallower. All the excitement on the pages are reflected in the young girls face, laughing at the clowns, worry with the sword swallower, and afraid to watch with the trapeze men. The street has become a magical shadow street circus. As always magic can only last for a little while and the city bus, or is that a circus elephant, pulls up to pick up the little girl. You expect the street to go back to being just a normal street scene. As you see the girl through the back bus window you see a young boy approaching the bus stop. You have to wonder if he will be able to see the circus magic.
To me the most wonderful thing about this story is how I see something new every time I go through the pages. It took me the longest time to see the bus's elephant shadow, and just today I realized that the man on the cover was the one putting up the circus posters. I think this would be a wonderful story to share with my class as a mentor text for inferring. I think even the younger students would be able to make inferences about the people and their circus side kick. I can't wait till I can use it in my classroom!