14 Best Carnival and Circus Books to Read Now
I talk about my time at the Zoo quite a lot, but did I mention I also worked for the circus? Yep! That’s why this list of the best circus books was so much fun to compile with Jackie.
When it comes to carnivals and circuses, I’ve always had a sweet spot. I used to work with my Aunt Jann, our Instagram followers know her well, during the summers of my college years when she did the publicity work for the Los Angeles leg of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus tour.
I organized press events like elephant baths in The Grove, clown readings at local libraries, and early morning show appearances inside the three-ring circus. It was the highlight of summers, but also TONS of work.
When reading the circus books and books about carnivals below, I’m often reminded of my time with the circus and all of the behind-the-scenes knowledge.
Did you know the clowns used to sleep on train cars? Or that the Elephants really did walk to the various arenas because that was the easiest way to transport them? And yes… all those clowns really can fit in those tiny cars!
Anyway, we hope you love the books in the list below and that they give you as much joy as they gave us! Let us know which is your favorite!
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Books About the Circus for Adults
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
Nell has always been different because of the birthmarks on her skin but she never expected that her father would use that difference to make a profit. When Jasper Juniper’s Circus of Wonder comes to town, Nell’s father sells her to Jasper as a leopard girl.
Jasper sees Nell and sets about making her into the star of his show and his ticket to stardom. When Nell starts to find friendship in her fellow performers and fall in love with Jasper’s brother Toby, the question is whether Toby can separate himself from Jasper and his past and whether Nell will take control of her story.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
Have you ever loved a book so much that you couldn’t put it down but also didn’t want it to end? That is how I felt about book!
In 2004 Lara Barnes’s fiancé disappears on their wedding day. As Lara searches for answers, she starts to unravel a family mystery that goes back to 1925. This book has everything. It’s a dark fantasy filled with mystery, disappearances, and magic.
I don’t want to give more detail because I don’t want to spoil any part of this book- it is my favorite fantasy of 2021!
Our Circus Books
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Here is the unforgettable story of the Binewskis, a circus-geek family whose matriarch and patriarch have bred their own exhibit of human oddities (with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes). Their offspring include Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset.
Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi
Kathleen Cremonesi knew early on she wanted to be different. Determined to avoid following in her mother’s footsteps to an ill-fated marriage, Kathleen left Oregon in her early 20s to travel across Europe. On a whim, this former administrative assistant with wanderlust took a job as a dancer in a circus and, working her way up, became an ostrich-riding, shark-taming showgirl.
Historical Fiction Books about the Circus
The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff
Noa has been cast out after becoming pregnant by a Nazi Soldier. She is forced to give up her baby as well and now finds herself living at a railway station and cleaning to earn her stay. When she finds a boxcar filled with Jewish infants being transported to a concentration camp, Noa grabs a baby and runs.
She finds safety with a German circus and must learn to become a trapeze artist to remain hidden in plain site. This is a powerful story about love and friendship.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I read this book long before we started the blog and I still recommend this book to everyone as a must-read.
It is the middle of the Great Depression and Jacob finds himself orphaned just shy of earning his Veterinary degree. He finds himself a job with a circus caring for a menagerie.
Here he meets Marlena, the beautiful star of the show, and an untrainable elephant named Rosie.
I loved everything about this book from the romance and tension to the beauty of the animals and their relationship with the people around them. This historical fiction romance was one of the first books we thought of for a list of the best romance novels of all time. It is no surprise that this one also found its way to my list of all-time favorite books.
The Ringmaster’s Wife by Kristy Cambron
I will always have a soft spot for the circus so this novel picked me up when I needed it. The dual timeline is set 25 years apart about two different women at the center of the circus.
In the turn-of-the-century story, we get to meet Mable, the woman who will eventually become John Ringling’s wife. 25 years later, Rosamund is considering leaving her life as an English Lady behind to join the famous Ringling brother’s circus.
I loved when the women’s stories eventually intertwined. If you are looking for historical fiction circus books, check this one out!
Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Coralie Sardien spends her days in a Coney Island freak show called the Museum of Extraordinary Things. There, appears as the mermaid in the museum run by her father. She is one of many attractions in the show.
One night, Coralie meets Eddie Cohen who has run away from his Orthodox community. What follows is a love story during tumultuous times in New York history. This is one of the must-read historical fiction carnival books.
The Inheritance of Orquidé Divine by Zoraida Córoda
I do not know how to begin to describe this wonderful and complex adult fantasy. The characters are deep and the magic from this story seeps from the pages
The Montoya family is summoned to their grandmother’s house to collect their inheritance. They are hoping to obtain answers from her before she dies. They are used to living with secrets and unexplained phenomena.
But when Orquidea Divina is transformed into a tree before their eyes, they must seek the answers themselves.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
What would you do if you knew the day that you were going to die? Would want to know? The four Gold children find out the information that will shape their lives in this amazing magical realism book.
Beautifully written, the Immortalists follows Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya through their lives. Ms. Benjamin does a superb job of creating different voices for each of these characters. They are so vivid and unique. This family saga book about grief is un-putdownable and stays with you long after you have finished reading the last page.
If you want to host an Immortalists book club, we have a post that will help you make it spectacular.
Best YA Fantasy Books Like the Night Circus
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Every word captivated me from beginning to end and I couldn’t put it down. The story was magical- both literally and figuratively and the descriptions are so vivid.
The stage has been set for a magical competition between the pupils of two very powerful magicians. The stage: the night circus. The pupils, a man and woman, are unsure of the rules, unsure of how to win or when the competition will end. As the competition continues, the opponents fall in love- a situation that only complicates their predicament.
This is magic in a way that I never imagined it before. The story has twists and surprises that left me wondering how I didn’t see what was right there all along. Not only can you find this book in our list of the Best Romance Novels of all Time, but you can also find it on our list of the Best Carnival and Circus Books, 24 Books Like the Hunger Games. And now, you can find books just like it in our post of Books Like the Night Circus. Can you tell we love this book?
Circus Rose by Betsy Cornwall
Rosie and Ivory have grown up in their mother’s circus and are returning to Port’s End. It is a place closest to any home after years of traveling. As the circus prepares for opening night, fundamentalists seek to stop the show from continuing. But, as the show begins, a massive fire strikes the tent and that is only the beginning.
This book is a queer re-telling of Snow White and Rose Red (not to be confused with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). It has been thoroughly reimagined and transformed in this book.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
The story begins with letters from Scarlett to Legend, the leader of Caraval- a game played once a year in a far-off destination. Every year, every time it is played, the game is different. Filled with magic and wonder, this destination-based competition is played by Scarlet as she tries to get this year’s prize – her sister Tella – before anyone else can.
There is a love story and magic as the stakes get higher the longer Scarlet plays. This is the first book in three-part series that gets better and more complicated with each new book. This is one of our favorite carnival books!
For the Ultimate List of YA Fantasy, head over to our Post
Books with Characters from the Circus
The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood
I had no idea that a woman was so instrumental in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily Warren Roebling is the focus of this historical fiction novel.
I loved learning about New York at the time of the bridge building and just how hard Emily had to fight for her right to be part of the building. It’s also humbling to understand the dangers of building back in the 1860s and 70s.
Men risked their lives for the betterment of society. On the lighter side, all the scenes with P.T. Barnum made me smile. I used to work for the circus after all!
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Album
This short novel packs a huge punch as Albom attempts to answer the meaning of life.
83-year-old Eddie spends his days fixing rides at an amusement park. When he dies trying to save a little girl from a freak accident, he wakes up in the afterlife and meets 5 people he impacted while alive.
He thought he had lived a meaningless, unremarkable life. Instead, he finds out just how important he was to those around him as he learns secrets from his past.
This one-sitting read is like a warm hug. A must-read at some point in your life.