Book Review: That Time I Joined The Circus by J. J. Howard
I’m a New Yorker; smugness is my birthright.
Lexi is most assuredly an avid New Yorker, so when calamity strikes and she’s forced to set out in search of her long-gone mother, a random hick town in Florida is probably the last place she wants to end up. And yet there she is, with no money and nowhere to turn, seeking out her mother’s last known employer — who happens to be the owner of a traveling circus. Lexi’s mom has come and gone already, and left no forwarding address, but the circus folk are willing to take Lexi in if she can work and if she’ll commit to staying through the end of the season.
From New York prep school student to shoveler of elephant manure and midway salesgirl — to say that Lexi’s life has been turned upside down is an understatement. Back in her upscale school, Lexi never quite fit in among all the pampered Barbie-like rich girls. With her best friends Eli and Bailey, she had a small but dependable trio, until Eli and Bailey became romantically involved and Lexi was left out in the cold. Bad decisions and bad luck lead to Lexi’s flight from New York, and as she settles into her new life in the circus, Lexi is forced to confront her own role in her recent disasters. With new friends and some newly discovered talents, Lexi starts to finally understand some key things about herself, about friendship, and about the different shapes and sizes of family.
Author J. J. Howard has a good ear for teen dialogue and sentiment, and makes nice use of pop-culture and social media references as well:
Okay, so I stopped posting status updates on Facebook a long time ago. I noticed that whenever someone posts something completely mundane and stupid, like Sushi 2nite! seventeen people have to comment on that. I Y Sushi! and Spicy Tuna 4 meee! But if you ever try to actually say something serious about your feelings or, like, your life, every one of your 386 “friends” is suddenly mute. So there you have it: My life is a post with no comments. Less interesting than spicy tuna.
Lexi herself is an dynamic, engaging character, not perfect by a long shot, but well-intentioned, self-aware, and trying to finally do right and do good. Many of the supporting characters, including the circus crowd and Lexi’s parents, are well-drawn as well, with quirks, charm, and depth.
The circus scenes are a lot of fun, with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the daily life of a show and its various social strata, finicky personalities, and immense amounts of work to be done each day.
While overall an entertaining read, I do have a couple of quibbles:
– The love interests and love triangle in this story feel a little two-dimensional. Neither of the boys in Lexi’s life are given enough individual personality. In particular, I felt that the older boy who Lexi meets in Florida was never much more than a cardboard character, and didn’t truly buy Lexi’s interest in him.
– The solution to Lexi’s problems — join the circus! — seemed too rushed and easy. Maybe she didn’t have a whole lot of other options, but being given shelter by the circus and then forming such deep connections to the circus family just didn’t strike me as entirely realistic. I understood why this would feel like a solution to Lexi, but didn’t necessarily understand why the circus owner and his family would take Lexi into their lives so enthusiastically and so quickly. Not that Lexi’s not a great person! But I didn’t feel that the other characters would have had enough to go on to reach that assessment in quite so short a time.
That Time I Joined The Circus is not a very long book, and in some ways that’s a problem. The premise and the storyline are really quite good, but I would have liked to see more of everything — more circus scenes, more time spent on Lexi’s developing friendships within the circus world so that these friendships would feel a bit more true, and more character development for some of the people who come into Lexi’s life over the course of the book.
Lexi herself is a nicely described and fleshed-out character, and I think the author is at her strongest in giving Lexi a clear, authentic voice. Good use of song quotes both fit the narrative and help illustrate Lexi’s mindset at any given point in the story. The plot unfolds through alternating chapters set in Lexi’s “before” life in New York and her current life with the circus, and this narrative choice keeps the momentum moving nicely as we readers must piece together what we know in order to understand why Lexi has ended up with no choices and no one to turn to for help.
That Time I Joined The Circus should appeal to teen readers who enjoy romance, family drama, unlikely friendships, and a hip, urban tone. It’s fun, it’s got great characters and snappy dialogue, and the circus setting is certainly different and unusual. Definitely not your typical high school drama!
Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via Netgalley.