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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: On Riding Ostriches

Matt Bird

Ever thought about joining the circus? Librarian Betsy Bird didn’t have to look far to find an entertaining topic for her historical young adult novel, Long Road to the Circus (Penguin Random House, 2021), illustrated by David Small.

 She looked to her childhood home and family stories, finding a fascinating tale of a woman who lived in Burr Oak, Michigan – who kept ostriches. Ostriches, it turns out, that she trained for the circus. Madame Marantette – real name, Emily Peek – made circus history riding horses and training ostriches. In this tale, twelve-year-old Suzy Bowles endeavors to train the Madame’s favorite ostrich, Gaucho, to pull a wagon alongside a horse.

A conversation with Betsy Bird.

“My family always had this strange, strange story,” Bird says. “My grandmother’s no-good uncle would cut out on his farm chores on a regular basis to walk to an elderly ex-circus performer’s house to help find out how to train horses to do circus tricks. It was one of those family stories that you hear over the years and don’t quite acknowledge to be true, and the woman’s name was something like Madame Marantette.”

Credit Penguin Random House
The book cover

Years later, when Bird’s mother was working in an independent bookstore in Kalamazoo, she learned that illustrator David Small, winner of National Book Awards and Caldecott Medals for his work, lives in the Marantette house in Mendon, Michigan.

“She puts the pieces together, looks into it, and lo and behold, Madame Marantette was real!” Bird says. “The more we looked into it, the more interesting she became.”

Bird was intrigued enough that she decided to write a children’s picture book about the woman and her circus animals, including an ostrich named Gaucho, who also proved to be real. When Bird approached David Small about illustrating the book, he urged her to expand on the story—write, instead, a novel for youth in the age group of 9- to 12-year-olds.

“Which was a bit of a surprise to me since I’ve never published a novel,” Bird says. “So, by gum, I went off and rewrote it as a novel.”

Richly illustrated with Small’s artwork, the novel comes alive with young Suzy Bowles learning how to train Gaucho while developing a close relationship with Madame Marantette, all in pursuit of a wish to leave the small town of Burr Oak someday to find adventure in the world beyond.

Betsy Bird, a native of Kalamazoo, is now the collection development manager of the Evanston Public Library in Evanston, Illinois, and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. Bird is the author of the picture book Giant Dance Party; the story collection, Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever.; The Great Santa Stakeout; Children's Literature Gems: Choosing and Using them in your Library Career; and a co-author on the nonfiction book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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