Over the (Big) Top
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda.
As far as early-chapter book series go, Three-Ring Rascals is a big step up in reading level from, say, the ever-popular The Princess in Black—and a smaller step up from another of my favorites, the Arnie the Doughnut series. The lengthy text, challenging vocabulary, and frequent word play make it suited for the most enthusiastic early readers. At the same time, the layout, broken up on every page by contagiously charming black-and-white sketches and speech bubbles, make it equally ideal for the so-called “reluctant” reader. When we first started the series, my son was a budding reader, and we quickly fell into a groove where I would read the main text alone, and he and I would read the speech bubbles together. “It’s like we’re putting on a play!” he announced jubilantly one night.
The best part, especially for those looking for chapter books suited to a pre-reading audience, is that this series reads aloud beautifully. If that doesn’t sound unusual, then you have not tried reading aloud other early-chapter series, like The Magic Tree House. Don’t get me wrong: The Magic Tree House books are perfect for developing readers to enjoy on their own—their fast-paced chapters of time-traveling adventures are highly effective at igniting a love for reading—but God help the parent that tries to stay awake while reading such exclusively plot-driven material.
Allow me to liberate you. Never for one minute think that it is your job to read aloud prose that doesn’t sing, that doesn’t impress you with its inventiveness, that doesn’t cut to the heart of what life should be about, that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat or have you erupting in giggles alongside your children. And this, my fellow parents, is exactly what Three-Ring Rascals does.
Three Ring-Rascals is equal parts sweetness and silliness. But don’t be fooled: lurking beneath the glitzy surface are substantial lessons about kindness, loyalty, and forgiveness.
The series is about the (mis)adventures of an eccentric, lovable troupe of circus performers—some animal, some human—under the care of a benevolent old man named Sir Sidney (who longs to retire to his private peanut farm). In the opener, The Show Must Go On! (Book One), we are introduced to an insidious scam artist named Barnabas Brambles (a.k.a. “Big Mean Baddie”), to whom Sir Sidney misguidedly entrusts the operations of his circus. Blinded by greed, Brambles attempts to over-schedule performances and mistreat the animals. As it does in all the books, the cleverness of the animals ultimately wins out, and the story ends with Brambles a reformed and repentant character, now sincerely dedicated to the welfare of the circus.
In The Greatest Star on Earth (Book Two), the peace and harmony of circus life is again compromised, this time by a competition staged by local reporter Polly Pumpkinseed, in which Sir Sidney’s performers try to “out-do” one another (with disastrous results), in an effort to be crowned the “greatest star on earth.” It takes Barnabas Brambles, acting under the tutelage of a pair of wise mice, to show the group that they each play an integral role in making the circus a success. (Everyone just needs to chill out.)
In The Circus Goes to Sea (Book Three), the performers try their hand aboard the S.S. Spaghetti, where they end up saving the cruise ship from sinking (using a giant meatball), while simultaneously befriending the lonely daughter of the ship’s single-mother captain. By the book’s end, the skeptical, unyielding Captain LaPasta falls in love, not just with the unpredictable circus troupe, but with Barnabas Brambles himself (cue wedding bells!).
If the third book ends with a wedding, the fourth and newest, Pop Goes the Circus! (Book Four) (which we devoured so quickly we immediately had to start it again), ends with a funeral for someone who isn’t dead. If that sounds bizarre, it is—but only in the irresistibly quirky way that this author-illustrator duo can so seamlessly pull off (their older-reader series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, really showcases their fondness for the macabre). You see, when circus mouse Bert gets carried off by a helium balloon in the book’s early pages, what else are his friends supposed to believe if not the worst? We alone are privy to Bert’s runaway adventures, involving robbers, ventriloquists, and a reunion with the third book’s young heroine, Flora Endora Eliza LaBuena LaPasta (say that five times fast). Of course, all is well that ends well, and Bert finds his way back to the circus just in time to turn his funeral into a popcorn-tastic homecoming party.
With any of these four books, it’s downright impossible on a first reading to grasp every detail embedded on the pages, from the main text to the accompanying graphics (things like ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, text messages, recipes, and song lyrics). Luckily, you won’t mind reading each book a second or third or fourth time, because it’s absurdly good entertainment. Find me another story where a circus train gets stuck atop the St. Louis Arch for a week. Where words like “worried” and “nervous” come together to make “worvous.” And yet, one thing that this series unquestionably shares with so many of the Greats is that good and true hearts always prevail in the end.
Sure, go ahead, wait for number five to be published (it will be titled Secrets of the Circus); wait for any more that might be coming down the pike; and then sit down with your kids and read each book back to back. Personally, that’s not my style. When something is this good, the kids and I just have to jump in before knowing how it all turns out. We might be pulling our hair out for months in between, but that might be the telltale sign of a Perfect Read-Aloud Chapter Book.
Other Favorite Early-Chapter Series That Make Engaging Read-Alouds:
Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (read my post here)
Toys Go Out and sequels, by Emily Jenkins
Dory Fantasmagory, by Abby Hanlon (the equally awesome sequel comes out this July, woo hoo, read my post about the first one here)
Lulu and the Brontosaurus and sequels, by Judith Viorst & Lane Smith
Mercy Watson to the Rescue and sequels, by Kate DiCamillo & Chris Van Dusen
The Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham (the highly-anticipated sequel comes out in October, read my post about the first one here)
The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Bowling Alley Bandit and sequels, by Laurie Keller (read my post here)
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