THE FLOATING CIRCUS, by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer (Bloomsbury, July 2008)(ages 8-12). Thirteen year old Owen and his eight year old brother Zachary are orphans in 1852 Pittsburgh. Not long after the pair are to be sent west on an orphan train (in the hopes that they will be adopted by farm families), Owen falls out of an elm tree and breaks his arm. Fearing he'll be crippled for life, and knowing that under such circumstances he'll be useless as a farm hand, Owen concludes that the only way for Zachary to be adopted is if he leaves.
Owen absconds from the train as it's departing and ends up on a giant circus river boat. There, he's befriended by Solomon, a freedman who works as an animal keeper and general custodian/maintenance man. As the boat travels south to New Orleans, Owen is exposed to unexpected cruelties and kindnesses, and his eyes are ultimately opened to the realities of the itinerant circus life (as well as the horrors of slavery), as he comes to realize where he fits in in the world.
In this superb and bittersweet novel, Zimmer gives readers an unvarnished and textured glimpse into the world of 1852, as Owen encounters yellow fever, storms at sea, freaks, slave catchers, and auctioneers. The friendship between Owen and Solomon feels real and the characters are developed with virtues and vices alike, as the story builds to a poignant, yet hopeful, conclusion.