________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 28 . . . . March 27, 2015


Learning the Ropes. (Orca Limelights).

Monique Polak.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
158 pp., pbk., pdf & epub., $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0452-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0453-1 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0454-8 (epub).

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Mary Harelkin Bishop.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



I don't want to be alone. Not after Terence's news. The other girls must feel the same way because when Hana suggests we go hang out in the MCC library, we are all quick to agree.

The library windows overlook the small gym, and from here we can see a student swinging back and forth or the trapeze. She's swinging so peacefully, I decide she must not yet have heard that a local circus performer is dead.


I can't get the word out of my mind.

I've known circus performers who've been injured - who've sprained ribs or ankles, who've dislocated shoulders... I even knew a trampolinist who broke her arm - but never anyone who died.

For teenager Mandy Campbell, going to circus camp for two weeks in Montreal is a dream come true. Gladly packing her bags, she boards the plane, eagerly anticipating all of the new adventures she will soon experience. An aerialist who is a rope climber, Mandy is excited to learn new skills. She is confident that she can make a good impression on the circus teachers in the hope that she will have a future with them at the circus school next year. Soon enough though, Mandy begins to doubt herself. She quickly discovers that she has major competition in the form of another circus camper, Genevieve, who is also an aerialist.

      Genevieve performs tissu while Mandy climbs rope. I found little explanation in the book about the difference between the two aerial acts although readers can infer that tissu is more dramatic. (I did some research and discovered that tissu is also known as aerial silk or aerial contortion, and it is done on strong fabric suspended from above. The performer wraps the fabric around parts of the body and performs stunts. Performance on rope appears to be more athletic and was once a sport in the Olympics in which competitors would use only their hands and arms to climb the rope.) Since the competition and the on-again-off-again friendship between Mandy and Genevieve make up a major portion of the book and add to the plot, an explanation of this sort, within the book, would have helped give readers a better understanding of the two types of aerialist acts.

      Genevieve and Mandy are very different, with Genevieve being dainty and feminine, using makeup and clothing to her advantage, while Mandy goes for the natural, athletic look. Makeup and clothing aside, Genevieve is an accomplished performer and is stiff competition for Mandy, especially since the two girls are vying for the same position at circus camp. As she gets to know Genevieve, Mandy begins to question many things about herself, especially her rope climbing skills. Training beside Genevieve is sometimes humiliating for Mandy, and she has to admit that she is jealous of Genevieve's talent and charm.

      As is often the case in real life, the relationship between Mandy and Genevieve is complicated. Mandy both admires and resents her friend. Genevieve sometimes annoys Mandy by taunting and teasing her about her talents and abilities as an aerialist. Mandy decides that this is Genevieve's way of pushing Mandy to excel, although as a reader, I sometimes questioned this premise.

      Besides Genevieve, there are several interesting and likeable characters who are also attending circus camp. The characters are colourful and mostly convincing. I had a little trouble believing that one young character would come from a famous Russian circus family all the way to Canada just to go to circus school for two weeks. In fact, the character doesn't seem to be a big part of the storyline and disappears from the book quite quickly. This reader questioned whether she was needed for plot or character development at all. Other characters include two boys who are clowns and who have some comedy routines they have created to wow circus crowds. Mandy and Genevieve are vying for the attentions of the same boy until they discover that he is gay and is boy friends with his comedy partner.

      Circus camp is a lot of fun and is relatively light and carefree until the news that one of the professional circus performers - an aerialist - has fallen and died from her injuries. This shows readers one real aspect of circus life and certainly adds to the storyline as Mandy deals with her own fear of falling and her uncertainty of continuing as an aerialist.

      All in all, Learning the Ropes is a good read. Part of the "Orca Limelights" series, the book is a high interest, low vocabulary title that deals with a provocative career, that of a circus performer, and it shows realistic situations, including accidents and death. Written in the first person, the writing and vocabulary are easy to understand and realistic to the thoughts and ideas of a teenage girl. The book gives a glimpse into the life and times of circus training and performing. It opens the door for readers who are interested in reading a book about the ins and outs of life in a circus. Learning the Ropes would especially be of interest to girls who are gymnasts and who might want to consider the circus as a career.


Mary Harelkin Bishop is the author of eight books and is most well known for the "Tunnels of Moose Jaw" time travel adventures. Her newest publication is a picture book, Gina's Wheels, which is based on an incident from the life of Paralympic Champion Colette Bourgonje. Mary is currently working as an Instructional Consultant for Saskatoon Public Schools.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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ISSN 1201-9364
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