Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sidewalk Circus

Presented By: Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes

Do you see an old man posting signs, or a Ringmaster? A young man picking up fruit, or a juggling clown? Is that a young lady walking her dog, or a lion tamer? Garibaldi Circus: Coming soon, or has it already arrived? I suppose the answer to these questions depends on who you are.

The wordless picture book, Sidewalk Circus, presented by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes depicts the vivid imagination of a young girl, which is contrasted with the adult-imagination—or lack-there-of. It is just an ordinary day in the city for most. Adults in suits are busy with drinking their coffee and reading the morning paper. For the most part, they are completely out of touch with the immediate world around them. A young girl stands out in the crowd and takes her seat at the bus stop—or perhaps, a front row seat for the show.

Fleischman and Hawkes use the power of color and shadowing in order to tell the story of this young girl’s imagination. On the left side of the street, I immediately notice the young girl approaching the bus stop because she is the only one in color. I can’t help but notice the other people approaching the bus stop and those already waiting because of the lack of color. They are all dressed in black, white, and gray and seem to blend in with the dark building behind them.

As the young girl sits down, she becomes a spectator as the shadow of the big top emerges on the buildings across the street. Nothing seems out of the ordinary—yet. With the help of the young girl and the use of shadows, we as readers also become spectators as we begin to see the comedy with events that occur in everyday life. Through the use of double-paged, full-bled illustrations, the illustrator allows us to feel immersed in the action that we are witnessing from the young girl’s perspective. What the young girl is seeing parallels the signs being hung by an old man, who in her eyes, is the Ringmaster. For example, the first sign we see displayed is advertising the Great Tebaldi—Prince of Tight Rope Walkers. Above it, we see a construction worker balancing on a steel beam with two buckets of items.

We continue to see other circus characters throughout the story—Goliath the Strongman as he carries a side of beef on his back into the butcher shop, The Famous Colombo Clowns as two young boys skateboard into a fruit and vegetable stand, and Fantastic Feats of Juggling as a chef flips pancakes in a diner. We continue to be invited to see the rest of the show as we witness the circus through the continuing shadows of the girl’s imagination.

As the bus arrives and the girl gets on the bus, I started to think that the circus might be over. However, a shadow of a clown can be seen as a businessman gets on the bus. Then, off in the distance, a young boy approaches the bus stop. I wonder if he too will catch the early show of the circus. As he notices the first sign advertising the Great Tebaldi, the reader can see a squirrel balancing on a rope. Now I know for sure that the circus has already arrived for this young boy.

This story in particular helps us to understand how important illustrations are to a picture book. Without text, this story allows us to imagine what the words may be and to take a close look at the actions and reactions of the characters in the book. Hawkes gives us the opportunity to see close-up “acts” through his full-bled illustrations. Off to the left side, however, we are also kept in touch with the young girl’s reactions through the use of a sidebar with an oval frame depicting the young girl and those around her. I laugh as we share in the moments of the circus acts together. In one of the earlier illustrations, the girl has her hands out and with a surprised face as she watches the “tightrope walker” and I imagine her saying “Isn’t anyone else seeing this?” All I want to say is, “Yes, I am too!” because the circus has already arrived for me as well.

As I finished the book I did start to wonder: Why do you need an author for a wordless book? Fleischman mentioned that the book did start out with words. Did Hawkes illustrate the book when it had words? I wonder about the collaboration between author and illustrator for this wordless picture book that sparks creativity and imagination in young and old alike.


  1. Great questions, Janelle. I am thinking that there is a lot of collaboration between the two. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be able to convey the story through illustrations that match the images in an author's head. I am speechless when I try to convey my thoughts about the depth of creativity that went into this book. Each time I look at this book I notice something new.

    Your review is amazing! You are an inspiration to me, as a writer. Thank you, for sharing your work.

  2. I like how you picked up on the black and white colors of the people arriving at the bus stop. And you mentioned the young girl taking her seat on the front row (or the bus stoop). How interesting...I didn't think of that. I think it goes to show you, as you said, it depends on how you read this and what frame of mind your in at the time. Sometimes I get lost in picture overload unless I'm trying to find Waldo.