Down at the Depot with Children's Author
Karen Kulinski

Fun History (Coming Soon)

The Year of Ivy -- A Gift from a Clown

March 15, 2014

An advertisement in our local paper answered my “where the heck do I go from here with my book?” question shortly after I asked it. A circus was coming to a town near me.

Not the world famous Ringling Brothers show that comes by rail every year to Chicago and plays in a big indoor venue. This was a small, one-ring circus that still played under a tent, a "big top" in circus lingo.

I discovered that a handful of these shows still travel by truck throughout the United States — driving all night so as to arrive early in the morning to set up the tents, the confinement areas for the animals, and get things ready for the afternoon and evening circus performances. After the last performance, everything is taken down, packed up into trucks, and the show heads out to the next town to do it all over the next day.

This was a kind of circus closest to the one the elephant in my book, whom I had named Ivy, would have performed in back in 1916. And the show invited people to come out early in the morning and watch the raising of the big top, with the help of an elephant.

The fates, it seemed, had arranged the first step in my research.

We set out at the crack of dawn on circus day. My husband, Alan, went with me –- equipped with camera and instructions to take pictures of everything he saw, especially everything involving an elephant. Accompanying us was our 9-year-old grandson, Logan, who was charged with keeping his grandfather company, because I planned on spending my time asking questions.

One of the fun things about small circuses is that you can actually get close enough to talk to the people who work there, and many of them will patiently answer you. One of these answers that day provided me with a small, unexpected detail which ended up being very important to my story.

Again, the fates?

My question was asked of a small, older man who was evidently charged with keeping the early-morning visitors a good distance away from the crew of about a dozen men and one elephant who were setting up the big top. Our keeper made sure visitors had a good view of the action and provided a commentary on the setting-up process — a major undertaking considering the tent canvas can measure as much as 144 x 188 feet and weigh in excess of 5 tons when dry and three times that when wet.

Watching the elephant – a female Asian – as she dragged heavy side-tent poles into place and then the longer center-poles, raising the canvas to a height of 35 feet or more, I was struck by how patient, hard-working and amiable she was.

So, I said to our keeper, “The workers are all being paid, but what about the poor elephant?”

The man smiled and said, “I’ve got her pay in my pocket.” He took out a handful of Tootsie Rolls and went on, “Elephants love sweets, especially chocolate. So she knows that when she’s done working, she will get paid.”

I immediately knew that I was using this information somewhere in my story.

Much to my surprise during the afternoon circus performance, I discovered that the man who kept visitors safe that day and told me about the Tootsie Rolls, was also a clown — circus people, I later found out, regularly do multiple jobs.

And indeed, candy — I turned Tootsie Rolls into fudge in my story – plays a crucial role in Rescuing Ivy.

I remain forever grateful to that circus clown who, in so kindly answering my question, gave me such a wonderful gift for my book.