Nothing stirs a child's sense of wonder and magic like the circus: the exotic trained animals, the glittering costumes, the booming voice of the circus master turning your wide-eyed attention to that ring or this. Sawdust and Spangles, the first children's book by
indie rocker and children's musician Ralph Covert, frontman
of Ralph's World, and his playwright partner, G. Riley Mills, hearkens back to the late 1800s and the lure of the traveling big top to tell of the delight, determination and dreams of singular circus legend W.C. Coup.
"Many years ago, in a tiny Indiana town…"
Young William Coup longs for adventure as he sweeps floors and hauls trash in his father's humble tavern. Then the circus comes to town, and the rest of his life is set headlong into motion. The colors, the music and the sweets appeal to his yearning for excitement as much as the lions and elephants and giraffes, the tightrope walker and acrobats and strongman. He runs away with the circus (a
secret daydream of many a child), loving every moment despite the hard work and long hours.
The big tent is raised and lowered countless times. The chants of the workers and the wheels of the horse-drawn wagon caravan moving from town to town in the night carry William through the years into his adulthood.
He comes to run his own circus,
becoming a great and determined showman in his own right. Despite the complexity of managing a circus – tracking tickets, performers and animals, and overseeing the sideshow (including General Tom Thumb, who could fit in the palm of the strongman's hand) – Coup takes the time to stand in a dark corner of the big tent at show time to "admire his creation and dream big dreams."
But just dreaming big isn't enough. Coup joins forces with circus
veteran P.T. Barnum to create the Great Roman Hippodrome, the
grandest spectacle in circus history. He invents the circus train, making it possible to travel 100 miles in a single night. He establishes the New York Aquarium, a marvel of iron and glass, of pipes and towering crystal cages filled with incredible creatures from the deep: squid, sea anemones, sea lions, devilfish and more. Here, too, he admires what he has wrought,
"…bathed in the soft blue light of the tanks…If you had been there to see him, you might have wondered if the twinkle in his eye was a reflection of the fish in the tanks, or the glimmer of yet another dream waiting to come out."
The Author's Note tells of Coup's eventual loss of the aquarium - and his financial worth - to his business partner. He rose again to open a traveling show that became one of the largest circuses in the U.S., as well as founding Wild West shows, trained-animal exhibitions and elaborate museums contained on trains.
Still, it's a wondrous note on which the story ends, of possibilities and passion, making this a fable worth reading for both
adults and young dreamers with circus stars in their eyes.
Giselle Potter's quirky, folksy illustrations (which will be instantly recognizable to Ralph's World fans from CD cover art) complete this tale of long-ago and imagination without bounds.
Surprisingly gentle in cadence for its subject matter, Sawdust and Spangles
has the feel of a folk song lauding an unlikely legend, a lyrical ode to a dreamer who made his dreams real.