Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: Watch Out For Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community

In her new book, Watch Out For Flying Kids! (Peachtree, 2015), author Cynthia Levinson soars to new heights exploring issues of black and white, rich and poor, and Jews and Arabs in a whole new way. As she did in her previous book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, Cynthia looks at prejudice through the eyes of kids who face it every day. About her new book, Cynthia explains, “I knew I needed to help make the notion understandable and acceptable that not only Jews and Arabs, but also blacks, whites, Muslims, Christians – all kids—can get along. And that circus is an especially enchanting means in which to do so.”

She’s right about that. The kids tumble, juggle and fly above the conflicts that afflict their communities. The two circuses are Circus Harmony of St. Louis, Missouri and the Galilee Circus in Israel. Each has its share of stars. In Circus Harmony, there is inner-city Iking, who was in danger of following in his mother’s footsteps (she died in prison) if not for a loving mentor who introduced him to the youth circus. Iking works alongside Meghan, a transplant from the white suburbs of Wisconsin. Half way around the world we learn about Roey, a Jewish boy with a penchant for juggling, and Hla, a hijab-wearing Arab acrobat, just to name a few.

There are a lot of characters in this story, but Cynthia keeps the reader on track as she first introduces each circus and then shows what happened when Circus Harmony visited Israel in 2007, and the Galilee Circus came to St. Louis in 2008. Young readers will identify with the typical problems of being homesick, yearning for pizza, and not feeling “good enough.” But they will also feel the fear and tension that is part of daily life in Israel when a murder is committed in the village the American performers are staying in.

The honesty in this book is refreshing. The children don’t gloss over their feelings of anxiety, fear, and awkwardness as they try to merge the two groups. At the same time, they reveal a lot of maturity persevering through injuries, lack of equipment, foreign languages, learning to trust each other, etc. And this is piled on top of the common challenges of growing up – changing bodies, trying to fit in, making decisions between sports, cheerleading, circus, etc.   

Throughout the book, sidebars in the margins offer more information about circus acts, Jewish and Arab traditions, as well as the Second Lebanon War that the Israelis kids lived through. Thematic quotes begin each chapter, and at the end Cynthia lets readers know what some of the children are doing now as older teens and adults.

Cynthia does a tremendous job juggling dozens of characters, bouncing back and forth between the two circuses, and moving the story forward chronologically. A less ambitious writer might have settled for a tighter focus on only one circus, but the story would not have allowed the reader to come away with the understanding that, no matter where we live, we are all alike. 

Highly recommended!