Written by Victoria Frances
Art by Victoria Frances
Reviewed by Sean Lamont
Intricate weaving plots full of surprise and betrayal. Bombastic action sequences of unfathomable scope and destruction. Moving character studies as individuals grapple with the frail human emotions of hope, fear, and loss. All of these elements have been combined over the years in order to create realistic and adult scenarios in a medium almost desperate to prove how mature and respect-worthy its craft should be regarded. It is something I can appreciate as an adult, picking my way through the vast array of options; but as a father, it has easily created a vacuum between these mature offerings and the often-times preschool level alternatives for children that leave some parents floundering in a dead zone of appropriate titles. Attempting to fill that niche, this week’s Misty Circus, a recently translated picture book from Spain’s Victoria Frances, tries to navigate that tricky middle ground by channeling the same style that worked for years prior; the dark and Grimm (*rimshot*) fairy tales of our youth.
Sasha Poupon, the child of a loving family of performers in 1920’s Paris, is struck with tragedy when his mother is taken from him by a final outbreak of the Plague. His father, crushed by the loss of his wife, loses himself to the drink and eventually abandons poor Sasha to fend for himself on the cold and unforgiving streets. Unwilling to live his life as a ward of the state, the young boy sets off on his own; eventually making a new friend in the form of a talking cat named Josh LeChat. Together, the two struggle to make their way in the world, until one day their travels bring them to the menacing yet welcoming folds of the Misty Circus. But while adventure awaits, have the two only put themselves in more peril by taking sanctuary within its tents?
Embracing the picture book roots of old tales, the simple story is accompanied by beautiful artwork from Frances that lands somewhere between anime with its large expressive eyes and the gothic tones that her work is most noted for. Full page illustrations depicting scenic elements ooze with flavor, and the facial expressions do a splendid job of capturing the various emotions our characters find themselves going through. The artwork is easily the biggest selling point on the title, and matches the tone of the book by being both innocent and unnerving throughout the tale. Simple in the scenes it chooses to display, there is also a deep level of complexity and attentive detail in each illustration that should amuse both children and adults alike.
Unfortunately, the story itself does run into a few snags along its journey. Starting off with somber tones that shy away from talking down to the intended 8-10 age group, there is almost a realization halfway through the story that it is perhaps too grim; suddenly shifting direction into a saccharine-laden romp that feels incredibly disjointed with the overall direction of the title. Seeds are sewn for story elements that never come to fruition, and the abrupt nature of the ending leaves an impression of incompletion rather than exciting people for possible follow-up stories. The nature of the prose is well-crafted for its intended audience though, fully explaining the scene while utilizing words that will strain without breaking the vocabulary of children. All in all, it is a cute story, but one that sadly feels hollow and without a satisfying resolution that is craved by the kids of that demographic.
A pass. It will come down to the taste of the buyer, but the sudden shifts in tone leave this particular title a member of both the adult and juvenile camps without finding purchase in either. Some parents may believe it too dark a tale to let children read from its opening chapters, while on the opposite spectrum many kids in that age-range will be left wanting when the story turns and takes the preschool level path it does for the second half. The artwork is stunning though, and many may find enough there to raise the book above its story-telling problems into something that they enjoy.