A highwire act of drama and unexpected friendship

posted in: Clara Vulliamy, James Mayhew | 16

bubbleandsquakefrontcoverDid you know that it’s perhaps all down to Pliny the Elder that there’s a widely held (Western) folk belief that Elephants are afraid of mice? (I learn all sorts of things researching blog posts!)

Well now we can turn to the very lovely and brand new Bubble and Squeak by James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy to be reminded that friendship can spring up anywhere if we don’t let our prejudices get in the way, and have just enough courage to act on our hopes, whether we’re elephants or not.

Mr Magnifico’s Circus has just rolled in to town. The star of the show is Bubble, a cuddly looking, rather glamorous elephant who performs dazzling, indeed mind boggling balancing acts. Fame, however, has not brought Bubble friendship and behind the glamour and glitz, she is rather lonely.

One night, simply looking for somewhere warm and dry to spend the night, a mouse creeps into the circus tent. He is bowled over by Bubble’s performance and sets his heart on introducing himself to the elephant. But the circus master spots the mouse and is having none of it! After all, elephants don’t like mice, and he can’t allow anything to unsettle the star of his show.

Will the mouse have to leave his hopes of friendship behind? Will Bubble be able to continue to perform, despite the sadness in her heart? Will the show simply have to go on?

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Human canonballs and flying trapezes ensure this is a story of high drama, but it also has all the romance and inevitability of star crossed lovers (although the story is actually about the love that exists in a solid friendship, not that of romance). As well as moments where your heart’s in your mouth (“The Pyramid of Peril!“), there are lots of occasions for laughter and giggling, for example, the “Mummy” tattoo on the arm of the strongman, the slapstick humour when the circus performers look for the mouse.

Whilst Mayhew has written a story full of optimism and with a rather satisfying kernel of truth – about friendship across the divide, and the impact of bravery – much of the book’s charm and humour come from the illustrations by Vulliamy.

Vulliamy is an illustrator whose work, for me, is synonymous with “reassuring”, “endearing” and “adorable” (think The Bear with the Sticky Paws, Martha, Lucky Wish Mouse*…the list goes on) and here she’s done it again. Bubble’s chubbiness is no barrier to grace, strength and elegance (though my girls did wonder if there was some magic in her name given the way she is able to balance in the most unlikely of ways!).

In the light of the recent discussion about the use of pink on books (see here and here), the palette used by Vulliamy deserves special mention. The colours are intense (the full bleed pages reminded me of Meg and Mog, and also of Tim Hopgood’s books), and although there is pink, the overall design is striking, and will hopefully catch the eye of parents to both girls and boys.

trapezeinbubbleandsqueakPerhaps not surprisingly, my girls preferred choice of activity having read this book was to run away and join the circus.

I’m afraid I would miss them too much (phew!), so instead I offered to turn our garden into a circus and decorate our garden swing to resemble the trapeze in Bubble and Squeak.

We chose a selection of imitation flowers, pulled the heads off their stems and then threaded them on string which we entwined around the ropes on the swing. The girls changed into their tutus, I settled down in the deck chair, and the circus performance involving lots of crazy moves, precarious balancing, and are-we-going-to-end-up-in-A&E-moments began.

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NO broken bones later, and exhausted after a thrilling (and to be honest, ultimately hugely enjoyable) performance we decide we all needed CAKE! We think Bubble would have heartily approved…

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Inspired by the delicate beauty Bubble balances on top off on the front cover of Bubble and Squeak, our cake was clearly a kindred spirit of the leaning tower of pisa. But vertically challenged or not, it was delicious and just the sustenance needed by intrepid circus perfomers and their mother.

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Some fun music to have on whilst playing circus includes:

  • In Tents by Recess Monkey (watch it at 1.51 here)
  • Rhyming Circus by Ralph’s World
  • Circus Song by Kitty Wolf


  • Other activities which would go well with reading Bubble and Squeak include:

  • Creating your own DIY paper circus, using this tutorial from bookhoucrafts.
  • Bringing a circus elephant into your home, using this tutorial from Mount Prospect Public Library.
  • Making sugar mice using ready-to-roll icing, which is as easy for kids to manipulate as playdoh. Here‘s how we did it (funnily enough, in celebration of another book authored by James Mayhew!)


  • Have you ever taken your kids to a circus? I’ve not, but it is now on our list for the summer holidays. What other circus themed books should we look for before we go? Whilst not a book, everyone here at Playing by the book can recommend the Hayao Miyazaki film Panda Go Panda, a sort of precursor to wonderful Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. I was under no obligation to review the book and received no payment for this post.

    *Do see if you can spot nods to any of these characters in Bubble and Squeak. We’re pretty certain Martha and her brothers are in the circus audience, and Lucky Wish Mouse’s hot air balloon makes an appearance too.

    16 Responses

    1. This book really sounds lovely. I will mention it to my library on my next visit. Impressive cake there too!
      Stephanie recently posted..What we are reading….Roald Dahl & Julia Donaldson

    2. Hi Stephanie, yes, do encourage the library to get a copy – it’s lovely!

    3. Zoe, this is an awesome looking cake 🙂

      My daughter enjoys listening to Emmeline at the Circus by Marjorie Priceman. She’s still a little young to appreciate the humour in the story but she loves looking at the pictures.
      Catherine recently posted..Joanna Gray recommends The Snaggle Grollop by Daniel Postgate

    4. Anne Booth

      I love what you did with the swings. I should imagine all the authors you review are amazed and delighted by the way you devise such wonderful activities around their work. And the cake! Amazing! “Bubble and Squeak’ sounds like a really beautiful story, and the illustrations very warm and witty. I look forward to reading it!

    5. Catherine, thanks for the recommendation – it’s a new-to-me book.

      Thanks Polly!

      Anne, the swing really does look great – especially with the cold spring delaying all the blossom in the garden, it’s a great splash of colour and hope 🙂
      Zoe recently posted..A highwire act of drama and unexpected friendship

    6. Looks like a great book for both girls and boys. I love the way you decorated your backyard for the high-wire act.

    7. I just love your daughter’s expression as she tucks into that amazing cake with her fork! If anyone likes their books on screen as well as on paper, I can recommend the book app Piccadilly’s Circus by Ink Robin. For “real” books, we like Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers where the penguin wants to fly and joins the circus as a cannonball.
      Helen D recently posted..I’m looking for an app about… inventions

    8. Hi Helen, Yes, it’s such a look of determination isn’t it!! Thanks for the book tips too.
      Zoe recently posted..A highwire act of drama and unexpected friendship

    9. So often when I visit your blog I find myself wishing I could run away and join … your family! How carefree and involved those young circus performers look. (Though on second thoughts, the chook in a tutu might be more than the world can cope with.)
      Susan Stephenson recently posted..Children’s Book Review, Once Upon a Slime

    10. The Mythbusters tested out the elephant-mouse myth and it turned out to be…. CONFIRMED! They were surprised. It’s a good clip if you can find it on YouTube.
      In the Seattle area, they have a children’s circus that preforms every summer. I really enjoyed going to it as a kid, as the children who preform in it are amazing. Also, there were no animals to be concerned for.

    11. Fred and Sophie

      Hi,

      Peters’Speer cirucs is a great book on circus with lots of details ..can have a look at amazon.
      http://www.amazon.fr/Peter-Spiers-Circus-Spier/dp/0440409357/ref=la_B001HD1N78_1_3?s=english-books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368976798&sr=1-3

    12. Thank you Sophie, your recommendation is on my wishlist!
      Zoe recently posted..We have lift off

    13. Hi, Zoe. The book, the swing, the tutus, the cake — all delicious to read about and see! My girls have been asking about the circus lately, but I don’t think I have the energy to attempt your awesomeness as a mom 🙂
      Kerry Aradhya recently posted..Join the May Read & Romp Roundup!

    14. Oh Kerry, thank you! I just wish I could fit into a tutu 🙂
      Zoe recently posted..We have lift off

    15. […] is a deliciously sweet book, to find out more about the book check out these lovely reviews over on Playing By The Book & Story […]

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