Just after school starts, everything changes for Ursula: She develops smallpox. When she recovers, her face is covered with scabs. Despite all of Ursula’s wishes and hopes and prayers, the little holes on her face remain. Yet Ursula might have moved forward with her life, if not for the incident at the stagecoach. A passenger laughs at her and cruelly says that her face looks like Swiss cheese. From that day on, Ursula refuses to leave her room. With nothing better to do, she begins to play the harmonica. One day, the family’s cook sends her a thank-you gift for her music, which he can hear from the family’s restaurant kitchen. And so begins Ursula’s friendship with a Chinese man named Ah Sam that also changes her life.
When the Circus Comes to Town by Lawrence Yep tackles prejudice through different characters. First, Ursula is ridiculed for her face. Her father encourages, “There are donkeys in the world like that man, but most people aren’t donkeys.” Second, there is Ah Sam. His hire didn’t sit well with the town. Folks complained that Chinese used a drug called opium, cheated and stole, and shouldn’t be trusted. Even Ursula initially feels mad at her parents for hiring a foreigner. Third, there is Tom. He is Native American. Upon meeting Ah Sam, Tom tells him that he has the mark. In other words, they have the same skin and eyes. They’re the “ones standing outside looking at the party inside”.
As Ursula becomes friends with Ah Sam, he introduces her to various aspects of Chinese culture. Initially, these are only briefly described. For example, one of Ah Sam’s presents to Ursula is a complicated design of golden threads that spells out the Chinese word for happiness. When Ursula ventures out of her room and into the kitchen and meets Ah-Sam for the first time, he’s using Chinese knives. They look like cleavers, with even the handles being made of metal. As he teaches Ursula how to cook rice, she asks about his long hair and the string designs that he made for her. Ursula learns that Ah Sam hopes to one day return home to China to see his family.
By now, Ursula and Ah Sam have become friends. She invites him to celebrate Christmas with her family. He makes plans to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his cousins and invites Ursula to join them. Ursula’s family learns that the Chinese New Year use a different calendar. Ah Sam also tells them part of celebrating the Chinese New Year involves putting on a circus, but first the cousins wish to practice their tricks by showing them to Ursula and her family. Ursula scoffs at the idea: How can four people put on a circus? Ah Sam responds, “What do you think a circus is? Big tents and big bands and lots of performers?” Well, yes, this is what Ursula thought a circus meant. Ah Sam informs her, “The magic doesn’t come from size and flash.” One of most delightful sections of When The Circus Came To Town describes the Chinese circus tricks. On the heels of that section, readers also learn about other things that happen on Chinese New Year too such as the payment of debts, delivery of money to children, cutting of hair and trimming of braids (queue), and setting off fireworks and beat gongs to scare away bad spirits. All of these are supposed to be important to Chinese people in preparing for the future.
You might be surprised to learn that When the Circus Comes to Town is based on real events. There was no Ursula, but there was an epidemic that disfigured a number of people–including an attractive young woman. Instead of one Chinese cook, there were two. Otherwise, Yep followed the real events that occurred in Montana in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. If you wish to read more, check out Elliot Paul’s memoir A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
Growing up in San Francisco, Lawrence Yep felt alienated. He grew up in an African-American neighborhood and didn’t experience white American culture until high school. Despite not speaking Chinese, Yep attended school in Chinatown, where he was labeled a “dumbbell Chinese” because he spoke only English. Both of these situations made Yep feel as if lacked a culture.
Although feelings of alienation are common among multicultural authors, I found myself intrigued by how Yep chose to handle his alienation. During his formative years, he read science fiction and fantasy books. In his Houghton Mifflin Reading profile, Yep explains that in those books “children leave the everyday world and go to a strange place where they have to learn a new language and new customs. Science fiction and fantasy were about adapting, and that was something I did every day when I got on and off the bus.”
In high school, an English teacher told Yep’s class that everyone would have to get their writing published by a national magazine in order to earn an A for the class. Apparently, the teacher later withdrew that threat, but the writing bug had hit. Yep sold his first story to a science fiction magazine when he was 18, being paid a penny per word. Only five years later, the age of twenty-three, he sold his first novel.
Yep has won several awards for his novels for young adults. His books often deal with alienation, drawing on his own experiences as an outsider. He is best known for Dragonwings, (1975) about a boy who leaves China to live with his father in San Francisco. The novel was selected as a 1976 Newbery Honor book and won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction. It remains one of the most acclaimed books in children’s literature.
Joanne Ryder, a children’s book author, and Yep met and became friends during college while she was his editor. They later married and now live in San Francisco. Today as well as writing, Yep teaches writing and Asian American Studies.
“Probably the reason why much of my writing has found its way to a teenage audience is that I’m always pursuing the theme of being an outsider or alien—and many teenagers feel they’re aliens. All of my books have dealt with the outsider, from the aliens of Sweetwater to alienated heroes such as the Chinese-American aviator in Dragonwings.” –Lawrence Yep, Scholastic
Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
CLASP founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It was established by in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie.
The Christy Awards are awarded each year to recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples. It is given to African American authors and illustrator.
children and young adult blogger literacy awards
Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award was initiated in 2000 to recognize authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with deve
Hans Christian Anderson Award
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards is given to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. The award is the highest international recognition an author can receive.
Kate Greenaway Medal
The Kate Greenaway Medal was established in 1955, for distinguished illustration in a book for children. It is named after the popular nineteenth century artist known for her fine children’s illustrations and designs.
Middle East Book Award
The Middle East Book Award recognizes quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the Middle East and its component societies and cultures.
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award
Honors fantasy books for younger readers, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia
Newbery Medal Award
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Pura Belpré Award
The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. It is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino experience.
Red House Book Award
The Red House Children’s Book Award is a series of literary prizes for works of children’s literature published during the previous year in England.
Sydney Taylor Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.