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Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare

Last updated Friday, October 2, 2009

Author: Darren Shan
Date of Publication: 2001
ISBN: 0316603406
Grade Level: 5th    (GLCs: Click here for grade level guidelines.)
Date(s) Used: Oct. 2009

Synopsis: Anyone who loves the humorous but hair-raising horror in R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series will devour British author Darren Shan's first novel with equal zeal. Some books are born with a surrounding buzz; this one even has Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling's stamp of approval: "Fast-paced and compelling, full of satisfying macabre touches," she writes. Warner Brothers will be making it into a movie, and the rest of the series is already in the works. Given all that, you'd expect a tour de force! Really, though, Cirque Du Freak is a thrill ride that will keep even the most reluctant readers turning pages, but will never take its place in the literary canon. Darren Shan, author and narrator, sets the book up as a true story, warning readers: "Real life's nasty. It's cruel.... Evil often wins." Indeed, evil begins to win when Darren and his buddies find a flier for "Cirque Du Freak," a traveling freak show promising performances by the snake-boy, the wolf-man, and Larten Crepsley and his giant spider, Madame Octa. Darren and his friend Steve wouldn't miss it for the world. So, Saturday night they sneak out to the old theater, tall and dark, with broken windows. "Every act you see tonight is real," croaks Mr. Tall. "Each performer is unique. And none are harmless." That's for sure. (A werewolf bites off the hand of someone in the audience, for instance.) Things grow very serious for the two boys when Steve not only recognizes Mr. Crepsley as a famous vampire, but professes his true desire to join him! To make matters worse, the spider-obsessed Darren goes back to the old theater to steal Madame Octa so he can teach her tricks in his room. (He does, with mixed results.) The plot further coagulates as Darren is faced with some terrible decisions about what to do to save his bloodthirsty friend Steve. Readers may be too enthralled to notice some clumsy editing (the aforementioned bitten-off hand is later referred to as an arm, Darren stops dead in his tracks when he's already stopped, etc.). They may also not notice that the boys constantly use adult-sounding expressions like "his breath stank to the high heavens," though the book is clearly set in the 21st century. If this book gets under your kids' skin (and it probably will), they're in luck--we haven't heard the last of the Saga of Darren Shan. From Amazon.com

Note to readers:
•  NOTE: You MUST read the Introduction to the kids—it sets the story and is very interesting. You may also want to read the first chapter of the second book which is at the end.
•  Vocabulary: Immersed; inquisitive

Discussion topics for before reading:
•  What do you think “Cirque Du Freak” means? It is French for Circus of the Freak.
•  Does this look like a scary book or a mystery book?
•  Do you think this is a true story or is the author making this up?
•  Do you like spiders?

Discussion topics for during/after reading:
•  Do you think there are freak shows now? Should they be outlawed?
•  Why do you think people found them fun or interesting? Is it nice to make fun of people that look different?
•  Would you want to be in a cage and have people stare at you?

Craft ideas:
•  Make a flyer for your own freak show. Who or what would you have in your show? Monsters—Big Foot; Vampires; Wolfmen or Werewolves? You can also create your own ticket to the freak show….
•  Make your personal “book plate”. Take one sheet of paper (white or construction) and divide it into at least 8 book plates. Fold in half-short sides together; fold in half again, short sides together; fold again so you have a rectangle. Open up the paper and cut along the folds. Each book plate can be a different design but each should have “Ex Libris” which is Latin for “From the library of” and a line for the name of the child.
•  Make a spider out of pipe cleaners. Take 4 black pipe cleaners and twist them over and over in the middle (to form the body). Separate the legs and bend the ends so the spider can stand. Cut eyes and fangs out of construction paper and glue on.

*Note: These craft ideas are just suggestions. You can use them, but you don’t have to use them. You can expand upon them, or add your own twist. Remember, though, that the focus of your time should not be on the development and execution of a craft; the focus should be on the read-aloud and the enjoyment of the book!