The Saint and the Circus is quirky and charming and utterly adorable.
It was originally a chapter in an Italian children’s book called Storie dell’orizzonte. This chapter, “Le grazie di san Tonio” is the story of Filofilo, “the daring acrobat for the Bumbellini Circus.” Filofilo walked the tightrope a hundred feet off the ground, with no net below him.
And it’s the story of “a certain Saint Tony, who had been made a saint more for his good humor than his good sense.”
A sparrow balances a sparrow
Filofilo was crossing the high wire, to the awe of his audience, when a sparrow flew into the circus tent. That wouldn’t ordinarily have been a problem, but the sparrow decided to perch on Filofilo’s balance pole. And that was a problem.
It threw Filofilo off balance.
So Filofilo did an eminently reasonable thing. He called on Heaven for help.
Unfortunately for Filofilo, St. Tony was on duty at that moment in Heaven’s emergency room. It was his job to provide help for anyone who called on Heaven’s aid.
As a child, St. Tony must have done way too many problems at school where he had to make weights or formulas balance. Because he decided to balance that sparrow with another one. And when the original sparrow, a boy, flew over to meet the new sparrow, a girl, Filofilo was out of balance again. So St. Tony sent a pigeon to balance the sparrows.
The pigeon, it turns out, wasn’t terribly bright, “but you can’t expect a pigeon to be smarter than a saint.”
And while St. Tony wasn’t bright, he meant well. He wanted to help. But as Filofilo continued to implore Heaven and the saints for help, St. Tony continued to make the problem worse.
Until his shift ended. Then St. Ulysses, who is crafty and wise, showed up, and the book, and the show, received a spectacular (and surprising!) ending.
Sharing the credit with Piumini
The Saint and the Circus was translated from the Italian by Olivia Holmes. Her name isn’t on the cover or the title page. The only reason I realized that this book is a translation is that I was searching online for information about the author and came across an entry that noted the Italian title of the book.
At that point, I searched the book carefully, and I found Olivia Holmes in the tiny, tiny type of the copyright notice. And then I found her on the website of Binghampton University. And so of course I emailed her to see if she was the same Olivia Holmes that translated The Saint and the Circus.
She is indeed that Olivia Holmes. She also translated another story by Piumini, The Knot in the Tracks. When they came out in Italy, she said, they weren’t picture books, but individual chapters in a chapter book.
And now I have to track down that chapter book in Italian for my grandson. Because his father likes reading to him in Italian.
To make The Saint and the Circus into a picture book, the American publisher needed pictures. Illustrator Barry Root provided them. His illustrations are blocky and solid. It’s interesting to me that the chunky art works with the story, which is light and whimsical. They don’t match, but they go together, like raspberries go with with dark chocolate.
What about the saints?
I should note that The Saint and the Circus is not a devotional story. It is not in any way didactic. St. Tony and St. Ulysses are not real saints. The story simply includes fictional saints as characters in a delightfully silly story.
I think that is wonderful. Saints are people, after all. And if we can have a fictional circus acrobat, we should be able to have fictional saints. If your family venerates the saints, you may want to point out that these aren’t real saints (although I think most kids will figure that out on their own).
And the book makes a lovely starting point for conversations about the saints and their intercessions and how they care for us. There’s no little black phone in Heaven, of course. And the saints don’t take turns standing by to answer our prayers. But they do love us. And St. Tony wants to do nothing more than to love and help Filofilo.
If you don’t come from a tradition that venerates saints, you and your children can still enjoy The Saint and the Circus as a quirky, adorable story. You can gasp with the crowd watching Filofilo, and applaud with them at the end.
Piccolina and the Easter Bells: A Review: Children in Sicily knew that if you were lifted high into the air when the Easter bells rang, you’d grow tall in the coming year. And Piccolina is tired of being small.
Vasily and the Dragon: A review: In this Russian folk tale, St. Nicholas and God deliver Vasily the Unlucky from the evil plans of Marco the Rich.
17 essential picture books for Orthodox Christian kids: If you’re looking for picture books that include stories about Orthodox Christian people and traditions, you’ll find them on this list.