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Smoke and Mirrors



About The Book

“Rewarding.” —BCCB (starred review)

A Wrinkle in Time–inspired adventure…Halbrook’s writing is artful.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This is a story to savor.” —Kathi Appelt, National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honor–winning author of The Underneath and Keeper

“Adventure and magic unfold in this captivating story.” —School Library Connection

“A fairy-tale atmosphere wafts through Halbrook’s story of magic, love, belonging, and circus...Enchanting.” —Booklist

Circus Mirandus meets Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms in this beautifully written fantasy novel about a girl who must face her fears in order to right a terrible wrong, confront what it means to be different, and discover her own power.

Smoke has come to the Cirque Magnifique. And Sasha Brown is sure it is her fault.

Sasha has always loved the Cirque, a place filled with sequined costumes, dazzling spotlights, and magnificent tents. But when she starts fifth grade with the Islanders—the ordinary folk from the other side of the Island—for the first time, she’s not so sure she wants to be a Cirque kid. She starts to question her home and her Cirque family. Is the magic real? Are the stories even true? As the bullying by the Island kids gets worse, swirling blue-gray Smoke appears.

One night in the big tent, Sasha’s dad performs, twisting his body through the air as the lights dance. Sasha is supposed to be helping, but instead she sits beneath the bleachers, seething. She has wished for the Smoke to come and make it all disappear: the Cirque, her family, the Island with its mean Island kids. And the Smoke does come. As Sasha watches her dad, he flips and raises his arms out for the bar that is supposed to meet him, his bright grin confident and sure. But there is only air…and Smoke.

Both of Sasha’s parents disappear that night, and it’s all Sasha’s fault. What can she do but try and find them?


Smoke and Mirrors

Sasha’s father flew like a bird.

His hair was as black as night and slicked back, with a shine like the moon glinting off a smooth, obsidian beach stone. His body and arms and legs were black too, his long, skinny limbs wrapped in his night-colored bodysuit, with only two white stripes on his shoulders. His hands, only slightly less dark than his bodysuit, flexed in anticipation. He stood tall on the platform, so that it seemed he could reach the highest branches in an old cedar tree, but really all he held on to with his talon hands was the bar high, high overhead.

“Watch this, Sasha!” he called down.

Sasha looked up from her book, leaving her finger pressed against the last word she’d read. She stood with the ruby-red tent as the backdrop and watched her father leap from his nest, soar across the sky, release the bar, and fling himself into a triple twist. Sasha’s heart thumped painfully as her father emerged from his pretzel, too slowly it seemed, so that she gasped and cried out. Her book fell to the dirt-and-sawdust ground.


But just as Sasha thought he’d fall into the thick mat below the trapeze, he sprung open like a flower desperate for sun and reached for the bar Mr. Ticklefar had pushed toward him. Her father’s claws grasped and curled, and he soared to the opposite platform while Sasha caught her breath and tried to slow her racing pulse. His teeth gleamed as he grinned down at her.

“Little Chick,” her dad said from his perch. “Do you like the new trick? Won’t it wow the audience?”

“I think it’s scary.”

“That’s not so scary. You know what’s scary? Opening yourself up to others to love with all your heart. But it’s the most wonderful thing too.” Sasha sighed and rolled her eyes, but Dad grinned. “Get changed and we’ll practice. Once we have it perfected, I plan to do it without a net.”

Sasha retrieved her book, forced a smile, and waved up at him. If his new trick frightened her, it would terrify the audience in that good, tingling way that made relief the most beautiful emotion of all.

In a moment Sasha’s mother stood next to Sasha. Her plumage was different from Sasha’s dad’s: an assortment of tropical colors beaded and sparkling on her leotard, and two slim, long, pale legs poking out below. On the weekend Sasha’s mother would wear a headpiece even more elaborate than the leotard, and weighing almost as much as her entire body, as she worked and twisted the rainbow of ribbons that dropped from the ceiling of the tent.

“Did you catch the timing?” Sasha’s mother asked, pressing a finger to her daughter’s elbow. Sasha’s muscles relaxed, and she smiled, for real this time.

Sasha dog-eared the corner of the page she had been reading and set her book on the bottom step of the stands. “Looks easy. Throw when his shoulders are highest during the second twist.”

“Right. Are you sure you don’t want me to show you up on the platform?”

Sasha shook her head. “I got it. I don’t need help.”

Her mom plopped a kiss onto the top of Sasha’s head. “You always say that. And you’re usually right. My very capable girl.”

Sasha changed and climbed the ladder to the aerial platform, high in the big tent sky. When Sasha was on the platform, she felt gigantic. Strong. So tall that nothing could hurt her. Now the stands were empty, but on the weekends they filled so that everyone in the audience sat shoulder to shoulder, packed into every space. All those people watching her . . . silent and waiting . . . sent tingles up Sasha’s back. And when they applauded after she and Dad completed their tricks, she felt like royalty. A Cirque princess. But she knew that earning their admiration took lots of practice. So she held the bar, counting beats in her head to get the timing perfect. Far below, Mom waved and grinned at Sasha.

“You can do it!”

Dad waited on the platform opposite Sasha. Somewhere in the tent Aunt Chanteuse began to sing. Her songs were at times melancholy, pulling surprise tears from the audience, but at other times jovial and uplifting. That was how she sang now, trilling until her notes sounded more like laughter than music. Aunt Chanteuse could pull extra rainbows from the gossamer bubbles that floated around the tent as she sang, just as Madame Mermadia could turn plain old dust motes into dazzling, dancing fairies with a toss of her red hair. Just as Mom could send the sweetest, softest breezes throughout the tent as she twirled on the silk ribbons, and how Dad could turn a drumbeat into a bolt of lightning in the audience’s hearts. This was the magic of the Cirque, and Sasha loved being surrounded by it.

“Sashaaaaa, toss the baaarrrr,” Aunt Chanteuse sang into the upper reaches of the tent. Dad laughed, and Sasha couldn’t help but laugh too. She shook herself awake.

“Okay, I’m ready!” she shouted, pulling her arms back.

“That’s my amazing girl,” Dad called over.

All through their practice, Sasha hurled the bar, learning the timing perfectly. Her parents applauded. Aunt Chanteuse sang. Mr. Ticklefar, the short ringmaster with the curled-ends mustache, tipped his hat and said, “Aha!” and “Well done!” Sasha filled, filled, filled with joy until she thought she would burst like a confetti cannon, spilling a rainbow of plastic-wrapped candies everywhere.

When the dinner bell rang, Sasha scrambled down the platform ladder. Mom helped her leap the last few steps, catching Sasha in her arms and laughing. There was always so much laughter at the Cirque. Some nights, as friends gathered in the cottages to tell stories—Mr. Ticklefar was the best, his stories of far-off travels told with the most ridiculous facial expressions—Sasha would have to hold her aching belly and gasp for breath for all the giggling everyone did.

Toddy, Sasha’s little brother, emerged from one of his many secret hiding places under the audience bleachers and took Sasha’s hand. The family walked to the dining tent together, followed closely by Mr. Ticklefar and Aunt Chanteuse. Along the way they caught up with Madame Mermadia and her children, Shelby and Griffin. They were all halfway through costume fittings, trailing strands of sequins behind them.

“Your arm’s falling off.” Sasha pointed at the length of fabric hanging from Shelby’s shoulder. Shelby was five years older than Sasha, and this was the first year Shelby would join her mom in the Magical Mermaid Lagoon performance.

“It feels like both of them are,” Shelby said. “My mom’s making me do strength training in the water tank. I hope there’s something good for dinner. I’m hungry enough to eat an elephant.”

“You look like an elephant,” teased Griffin, Shelby’s twin brother. Shelby reached for him, and Griffin bolted across the field to the dining tent, shrieking as Shelby chased after him.

“They’re getting so big,” Mom said, same as she did every time she saw Shelby and Griffin.

“They’re not the only ones.” Madam Mermadia tousled Sasha’s hair. “Are you excited about your first day of school tomorrow?”

Mr. Ticklefar, overhearing Madam Mermadia’s question, stepped forward. “She will astound them all!”

“It will be deeeliiightfulll,” Aunt Chanteuse sang.

But Sasha’s heart pounded harder than it had when she’d watched Dad do his new trick for the first time. Even though she was going into fifth grade, Sasha had never before stepped foot in a public school. She and Toddy had always been taught at the Cirque, learning their letters and numbers, as well as the lore of the Cirque; practicing science experiments in between helping Mr. Ticklefar take apart and repair machines; and almost always—for Sasha, at least—getting caught up in the fantastical worlds of her favorite books. But school would be different. She wouldn’t have Mr. Ticklefar’s stories to teach her geography, or Madame Mermadia’s lessons on oceanography. Would there be any magic at school at all?

Mr. Ticklefar always said the Cirque was the best place on earth, but there were important and useful things to learn in other places and from other people. Sasha’s parents agreed, and so she and Toddy were to start a new adventure in their education.

Sasha put on a brave face and talked bigger than she felt to Madame Mermadia. “It’ll be great.”

Sasha squeezed Toddy’s hand. The siblings shared a secret look and reluctantly smiled. It was good, Sasha thought. Having a brother. Taking these next steps with someone familiar by her side. Even if every moment at school was not-great, Sasha and Toddy would have each other.

About The Author

K.D. Halbrook is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novels Every Last Promise, which Kirkus Reviews called “lyrically written and ebbing with suspense” in a starred review, and Nobody but Us, which Booklist deemed “raw, immediate, and utterly unflinching.” Smoke and Mirrors is her first middle grade novel, and BCCB called it “rewarding” in a starred review. Halbrook is the cofounder of the popular website and lives with her family in Seattle. She can be found online at and on Twitter @KristinHalbrook.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (September 4, 2018)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534405042
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 780L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

Sasha and her family live at the Cirque Magnifique; they are different from the Islanders with whom they share their town. Formerly home-schooled, fifth-grader Sasha and her little brother, Toddy, are now starting public school. Sasha is responsible for making sure that Toddy isn't teased or mistreated—he's different from most other kids—but Sasha's being bullied herself. As if that's not enough, the Cirque's longtime enemy, the mysterious Smoke, is making an appearance, slowly billowing around it. Sasha, who is growing more and more frustrated with her family as she approaches adolescence, is not entirely unhappy about a dark, sullen force slowly overtaking the Cirque—that is, until it engulfs the Cirque during a performance and turns her parents into birds. Sasha and her brother struggle to subsist on their own before setting off on an adventure to rescue their parents. They solve riddles and defeat monsters along the way. Halbrook's writing is artful.

– Kirkus Reviews

Fans of Cirque Magnifique are as amazed by the sequined and feathered performers as they are enchanted by the magic of the Light at the center of this unconventional family of gifted outcasts. Fifth-grader Sasha, the daughter of the Cirque’s trapeze artists, was taught to believe that the Light is the only thing keeping the sinister Smoke at bay. When she and her little brother begin attending school with the rest of the Islanders, who constantly bully and harass Cirque kids, Sasha’s connection to the Light wavers, and she begins to resent her family and everything that makes her special. After Sasha blows up at her parents, the Smoke emerges stronger, causes a high-flying accident, and takes her parents away. She and her brother must voyage to the Edge of the World, the source of the Smoke, to save their parents. Halbrook writes a heartbreaking account of a young girl’s spirit buckling under her longing to be accepted and her negotiating of a complicated legacy. The novel’s wistful prose and a relatable search for the Light will be rewarding for readers who can see in the Smoke any number of metaphors for the things that haunt us.

– BCCB *STARRED REVIEW*, July/August 2018

Sasha has always loved her life at the Cirque Magnifique. She finds joy in the sights and sounds of the Cirque and the magical people who are part of it. Fifth grade is the first time Sasha and her brother leave the Cirque to go to school with the Islanders, who brand her a freak and do not want to be her friend. The experiences outside the Cirque make Sasha question the magic of the place. Her questioning and her anger at being different set into motion a series of events that force her to think about what it means to be different. Adventure and magic unfold in this captivating story that is sure to draw the reader in and establish Sasha a friend. This is a touching story about being different, seeing past the smoke and mirrors people put up, and learning to love the differences between people. Pamela K. Simmons, Librarian, Penn Yan (New York) Middle School


– School Library Connection, October 2018

A fairy-tale atmosphere wafts through Halbrook’s story of magic, love, belonging, and circus....The story centers around Sasha's inner turmoil, but its strongest aspect is her relationship with Toddy. Their love for each other keeps them afloat as societal and otherworldly dangers loom. Personal revelations and faith in magic lead to a happy resolution to this enchanting tale.

– Booklist, September 1, 2018

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