From School Library Journal

“In 1853 Pittsburgh, Owen Burke, 13, and his younger brother are abandoned by their widowed mother. Soon the boys are on an orphan train that will ostensibly take them to a better life on a farm. Owen jumps off and finds his way to a circus boat. Befriended by Solomon, an elderly former slave, the boy is given work mucking the animals’ stalls and keeping the boat clean. He feels loyal to his mentor and develops a trustful relationship with Little Bet, an elephant. The boy is also taken under the wing of Mr. Greene, who runs the print shop and whose son, Caleb, becomes a surrogate younger brother. A sudden turn of events includes a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans, a storm that forces the end of the River Palace circus, the sale of Solomon despite his “free papers,” and an appearance by the famous clown Dan Rice, who buys Little Bet. While Owen agrees to join Rice, he also receives an offer to move with Caleb and his family to Philadelphia as their stable boy, learns that his brother has been adopted and is back in Pittsburgh, and determines to find and free Solomon. Although Owen seems more insightful than a 13-year-old is likely to be, his engaging narration moves along at a satisfying pace, and the door is left open for a sequel.”

From Publishers Weekly

A circus boat in the 1850s is the offbeat setting for Zimmer’s lively historical novel. Readers will be hooked from the start by the voice of the narrator, Owen, first met in a Pittsburgh orphanage as he describes the difference between him and his younger brother, Zach: “Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin.” Wanting the best for Zach, Owen runs away when, just before the two are put aboard an orphan train, Owen learns that Zach will have a much better chance of being adopted without a brother; from this chaotic beginning, Owen stumbles upon Solomon, a former slave, who brings him aboard the circus boat and gets him a job. As the boat travels south, Owen’s awareness of slavery grows in a way that feels organic to the story. Historical details, such as the workings of a printing press, give readers a deeper taste of the era, and animal lovers will especially enjoy Zimmer’s portrayal of the circus elephant that Owen comes to know. Bittersweet and satisfying.”


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In 1853 Pittsburgh, twelve-year-old Owen leaves his brother on a westward-bound orphan train and strikes out on his own. When he steals aboard a circus boat that's docked in town, he has nothing more in mind that catching a peek at the show. But then a free black man named Solomon offers to take him on as an assistant animal keeper, and as the boat heads south, Owen discovers a kind of family in the ragtag members of the circus- including an elephant named Little Bet. A brush with yellow fever in New Orleans and a devastating storm threaten the boat and its crew. But the menace of slave catchers poses the greatest danger of all will put Owen's loyalty to Solomon to the test.

author: Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

ISBN: 13: 978-1-59990-185-5

ISBN:10:  1-59990-185-4

Hardcover: 208 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books

Product Dimensions: 5  1/16 x 7 3/4 inches

Reading level: Ages 8-12

Teacher Resources for this book:

Click on the link below to Download PDF File

  1. Discussion Guide

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