The Best Books Under the Bigtop

Get front row tickets to the greatest show on earth with these 11 books about the circus

circus tent
Photo by Gabor Barbely on Unsplash

Couldn’t get your tickets to the greatest show on earth? Don’t worry, we saved you a seat. In these circus books, you’ll find death-defying stunts, powerful beasts, and sideshow performers who aren’t always what they seem. With daring, danger, and cotton candy around every corner, you’ll need to hold onto your top hat to get through these exciting books.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Le Cirque du Rêves is only open from sunset to sunrise, but the drama continues all day long at this traveling circus. Dueling magicians Celia and Marcus have been raised to be enemies, and the circus is their battleground. But when the two young spell-casters fall in love, their lives–and the lives of everyone else in the circus–are suddenly at stake.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

When a young librarian receives an ancient book inscribed with his grandmother’s name, he immediately plummets head-first into a world of family secrets, magic, and mermaids. When he discovers a curse that has haunted generations of circus-performer women in his family, the librarian must untangle the mysteries of his family’s past before it’s too late.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Narrated by Oly, a bald, albino, hunchbacked dwarf, this novel tells the story of a couple who sets out to bear only “circus freak” children. Through the use of both legal and illegal drugs, and other dangerous materials, the Binewskis manage to give birth to a family whose anatomy ensures them success at any circus—but who also, perhaps unsurprisingly, have slightly more than the regulation amount of boiling family resentment. Katherine Dunn turns a carnival mirror to her audience in this dark, funny, and hugely original read.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

When a Florida family’s gator-wrestling theme park falls into disarray, it’s up to Ava, the youngest daughter, to save the day. With her mother ill, her father gone, her sister tied up in a spooky love affair, and her brother defecting to a rival theme park, Ava must travel through a magical, dangerous swamp called the Underworld in order to hold on to the life she knows.

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

In turn-of-the-century Coney Island, young Coralie lives with her father above a museum of oddities. When Coralie’s father begins displaying her in the museum as a mermaid, she forms bonds with the other so-called freaks on display. One night, while out for a swim, Coralie happens upon a young Russian immigrant with a camera and quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery involving a missing girl and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that sets Coralie’s life into motion. 

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

On the maiden voyage of the greatest train ever built, Will Everett happens upon the key to a car filled with treasure, and immediately has to run for his life. Will escapes to a traveling circus where he meets a ringmaster and a young escape artist, and the three must stop the villains pursuing Will and save the train before tragedy strikes.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Sophie Fevvers is part woman and part swan—or is she? When an American journalist desperate to uncover the truth about this famous aerialist falls in love with her, he’s swept away with the traveling circus on a tour of nineteenth-century England and Russia.

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The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine

In this electrifying memoir, a young woman pushed to the brink of fear over her mother’s long-standing illness is offered an opportunity to escape her life—by joining the circus. As she learns to control her body and mind while performing death-defying stunts, Fontaine also learns about her deepest self, and the power of love to overcome even the most frightening moments. 

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Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi

A family of Romanian refugees/circus performers travel through Europe and Africa in a caravan: A mother who can’t quit her dangerous and reckless performances, a father with dark secrets, two daughters trying to keep their family together. Told from the point of view of an illiterate narrator, Veteranyi’s only novel is both dark and funny, gripping and elusive, but always brilliant.

Sea Monsters: A Novel by Chloe Aridjis

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

In 1980’s Mexico City, Luisa feels trapped in a life without meaning. When she stumbles upon a newspaper article about a troupe of Ukranian dwarves who ran away from a circus touring Mexico, Luisa decides she must find these Soviet escapees in order to find herself. After boarding a bus to the Pacific coast with a boy she barely knows, Luisa will discover more than her fair share of dark secrets waiting in an eccentric beach town on the Mexican coast.

Image result for tumbling turner sisters by juliette fay

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

It’s 1919, and the Turner family has just lost their main source of income. In order to avoid poverty, their mother pushes daughters Gert, Winnie, Kit, and Nell into a tumbling vaudeville act. When their act is picked up by an agent, the sisters and their mother are sent on a tour of east coast vaudeville theaters, where they travel with a peculiar company of performers. As the Turner women become closer with their fellow vaudevillians, the characters tumble together into a world of romance, friendship, and theatrics that will leave them changed forever. 

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