Our junior fiction selection No Stars at the Circus by Mary Finn was definitely a change of pace and one that would appeal to your older readers. Many of the members mentioned how popular the Holocaust stories were for children in their schools, particularly from years 5 and up. We talked about novels such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I am David, The Diary of Anne Frank, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Hanna’s Suitcase, Once, Then and Now and their suitability for younger audiences. We felt that this novel was, in a manner similar to The Boy on the Wooden Box, a gentler introduction to the historical period.
What we especially like about this historical novel was the setting of Paris, although it was commented that it did not really evoke a definitive sense of place as there was no mention of the more obvious landmarks associated with Paris. The only clue for some members was the image of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. The story did, however, convey the sense of the historical period. Although quite a slow moving novel we thought that some of the language and imagery, particularly from Jonas’ descriptions when he is in hiding, were very well written.
The idea of the circus as a place of refuge was delightful and the cast of circus performers allowed for some interesting characterisations. Some members were intrigued by the idea of the flea circus and the intricate carriages made for the fleas. We felt it was important for children to be aware that there were many brave and selfless people in the war, such as the teacher of the deaf students and the Professor, who did risk their own lives and safety to give shelter to Jewish families. The scene where Jonas hides in the kitchen, certain that he will be discovered, also provided a suitable amount of tension. It was interesting to note that most of the “unhelpful’’ people were faceless and unnamed – the pimply arm man, the ‘crows’, the Gestapo, whereas the “helpful” people such as the Professor, the Policeman and Signor Corrado were well described.
For many of us the story was an eye opener as we had not known very much about the incident of the roundup of Parisian Jews at the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver on the 16th and 17th July, 1942. Some of us had seen a recent adult movie version of this event but most of us knew more about the Jewish situation in Poland, Germany and Holland. We felt that it was unlikely that Jonas’ parents had survived but thought this was dealt with in a very sensitive manner. Finding out about the fate of his sister also gave hope. The historical note at the end of the book outlining the facts about what happened to the Jewish people of France added authenticity and poignancy to the story. We felt this was a good starting point for children interested in this historical period.