Tents, Tigers and the Ringling Brothers

By Jerry Apps

Paperback: $12.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-374-9

128 pages, 81 illus., 1 map, 7 x 9"


Orders for Trade, Library or Wholesale >>

This addition to the Badger Biographies series for young readers features the story of the young Ringling brothers of circus fame. The book tells the inspiring story of the seven sons of German and French immigrants who were guided by their dreams to escape poverty through hard work and ambition. These entrepreneurial brothers moved with their parents to Baraboo, Wisconsin where their fantastic circus adventure began. With no prior circus experience, the brothers tackled one of the riskiest businesses of the time. Each brother contributed his unique talents to make their enterprise successful. The Ringling brothers were admired for their technological innovations, strategy, and devotion to education. They were also esteemed for their genuine appreciation of their audience.

Fountas and Pinnell Level R

Discover more books by Jerry Apps on the Jerry Apps author page!

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Jerry Apps is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than twenty-five books, many of them on rural history and country life. Jerry's nonfiction books include "Every Farm Tells a Story," "Living a Country Year," "When Chores Were Done," "Humor from the Country," "Country Ways and Country Days," "Ringlingville USA," "Horse-Drawn Days: A Century of Farming with Horses" and "Barns of Wisconsin." He has written two books for young readers, "Tents, Tigers and the Ringling Brothers" and "Casper Jaggi: Master Swiss Cheese Maker," and the novels "The Travels of Increase Joseph" and "In a Pickle: A Family Farm Story." He received the 2007 Major Achievement Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the 2007 Notable Wisconsin Author Award from the Wisconsin Library Association. Jerry was born and raised on a small farm in Waushara County, Wisconsin, about two miles from the land that is the subject of "Old Farm." He and his family have owned their farm, Roshara, since 1966, and he and his wife, Ruth, continue to live there part time. Once a small dairy farm, the property is now a tree farm with an ongoing prairie renovation. Check out his latest book, "Never Curse the Rain: A Farm Boy's Reflection on Water". Discover more books by Jerry Apps on the Jerry Apps author page!

For more information on author, storyteller and historian Jerry Apps, please visit:

And check out his blog, which covers his thoughts on everything from his books to environmental subjects to his personal life and much more at: www.jerryapps.com/blog

Interview with Jerry Apps

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: You've done a great deal of research on the Ringlings to write both a general audience and a biography for young readers. What about the subject intrigued you?

Several things. How seven brothers, five of them partners, were able to start with almost nothing and develop a business — a circus — into the largest in the world. They had no outside money at anytime. I was also intrigued by how this massive enterprise comprising 1200 employees, 500 horses, 45 elephants and 85 rail cars was able to move each day, six days a week and put on a parade and two shows at each town.

WHS Press: What aspect of the Ringling story was the most interesting to relate?

How seven brothers were able to get along with each other through thick and thin, when times were good and when times were tough. The Ringling boys had great respect for each other, and cared deeply about each other. It's a great family story.

WHS Press: What was the most difficult part of telling the story to young readers?

Making the more technical aspects of the story interesting, such as how the big top tent was erected. I suppose the biggest challenge for me was to tell a huge, complicated story, with many twists and turns on a relatively few pages.

WHS Press: Which of the brothers was the most interesting? What about him fascinated you?

Al Ringling. He was the oldest of the seven brothers. It was his vision and leadership that got the circus started. He also proved to be the glue that held the brothers together, and kept them moving forward with their grand circus plans. For many years, Al served as Ringmaster for the circus, an interesting, colorful role. Al also loved Baraboo, Wisconsin, building a large home there and contributing money toward building the world famous, Al Ringling Theater.

WHS Press: Which family traits helped the Ringlings' ventures succeed?

The brothers loyalty and respect toward each other, discipline and hard work, attention to detail, care for others, and honesty.

WHS Press: What aspects of circus life did you find most interesting?

What happened behind the scenes such as how the circus moved each day from place to place. How the circus cared for its employees and its animals, while constantly on the move. I was greatly impressed with circus marketing and advertising and how much effort the boys put into these activities. For instance, at one time more than seventy men were responsible for putting up circus posters in and around the towns where the circus would perform.

WHS Press: What aspects of life in the later 20th century led to the decline of public response to the circus?

Movies, first silent and then talkies, cut into circus attendance. The coming of radio in 1922 also contributed. And of course the automobile allowed people to freely travel considerable distances for their entertainment. With TV coming in the mid-1900s, one more entertainment source competed with the circus for attention. In the late 1800s, the circus was nearly the only source of outside entertainment to visit most towns. By the late 1900s, people had multiple entertainment opportunities.

WHS Press: What do you think has replaced the circus as family entertainment (beyond television and the internet and other stay-at-home activities)?

Water parks, organized sports for kids such as Little League, and family trips to such places as Disney World. Modern day families have terrible time constraints with both parents working, so family activities often take some planning with several choices to consider.

WHS Press: Why is it important that young people learn about the Ringlings?

From nothing, the Ringlings created the largest circus in the world, and it was located in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringling Brothers are an example of how a group of boys, with a vision, respect for each other, hard work, trust, honesty and willingness to learn made their business prosper. I believe it is also important for young people to see how a family run business begins operations, and how they grow and succeed.

WHS Press: How does their story help us understand more about the culture of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest?

Wisconsin is home to many famous families and individuals such as J. I. Case, E. P. Allis, the Kohlers, Miller Brewing, Anderson Ship Building, William Dempster Hoard, Frederick Pabst, the founder of Lands' End, and many, many others. The Ringlings are an important part of this group. The culture of the Upper Midwest is noted for its work ethic, concern for family, dedication to a task, perseverance, resourcefulness, and honesty. These values were an important part of the Ringlings' success.

2013 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards
Best Book Series - Nonfiction, Silver Medal Winner

Praise for Tents, Tigers, and the Ringling Brothers
"Jerry Apps recalls for me the poignant memories of good times and camaraderie when I worked on the circus 1937 through 1941." —Paul Ringling, grandson of Alf T. Ringling. Paul worked for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it was managed by John Ringling North.

"Mr. Apps captured the spirit of the brothers who had a dream, worked together, and persevered to become one of the largest circuses in the world. Not only is this biography a wonderfully entertaining story, but it's narrated in a way that makes the reader feel a part of the growing excitement and adventure of developing a circus. Even though the vocabulary and captivating factual information is geared towards children, this is a book that can be enjoyed by young and old alike because it does resurrect that child in all of us!" —Barbara Bellmer, art specialist and teacher at Brandon School, Brandon, WI.

Praise for Badger Biography Series
This feature article by Karyn Saemann appeared in "The Capital Times" in 2008

They changed the face of Wisconsin. Now, their faces are becoming familiar to children around the state.

Since 2005, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press has tapped a diverse well of authors to write children's biographies of notable state figures.

Notable doesn't have to mean famous. Some "Badger Biographies Series" subjects, like Green Bay Packers founder Curly Lambeau, are household names. But others, like immigrant Swiss cheese maker Casper Jaggi, are little known yet accomplished extraordinary things.

"We want to have a balance of well-known and not," said Bobbie Malone, director of the society's Office of School Services, whose job is to cultivate potential titles and authors. So far, eight books are out, and more are coming.

"I do love what I do," said Malone, a former first-grade teacher who, when not editing the latest biography or some other society publication, travels around the state showing teachers how to bring Wisconsin history alive.


"What's not to fall in love with? There are so many interesting stories," mused Malone from her tiny office overlooking UW-Madison's Library Mall.

The authors, too, say they've found inspiration in the stories that, in addition to Lambeau and Jaggi, have so far included Hmong refugee Mai Ya Xiong; escaped African-American slave and Underground Railroad user Caroline Quarlls; the founders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles; Mountain Wolf Woman, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation; the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Milwaukee Jew Lizzie Kander, whose "Settlement Cook Book" taught American homemaking to immigrant women and raised money for social causes.

"I think it's fascinating to see how people lived their lives," said Diane Young Holliday, an archaeologist who authored "Mountain Wolf Woman: A Ho-Chunk Girlhood."

Ultimately, "we want people to fall in love with the past so they value it and connect it to their own lives," Malone said.

Bob Kann, who inked Lizzie Kander's story and is himself a Jew whose mother owned a "Settlement Cook Book," said readers will relate to the tales of hard work and determination.

"It's important to expose kids to people who are exemplary, to show how people accomplished what they accomplished, how they dealt with defeat and to show their resilience in how they bounced back," Kann said.

Of Milwaukee's Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th Century, Kann said he hoped to show "how difficult their lives were, and how courageous it was for them to come to this country with very few resources."

"There weren't any social service agencies," Kann said. "They were very fortunate to have people like Lizzie Kander who were filling that gap."


Writing for children isn't easy.

Jerry Apps, a veteran writer who with the exception of two titles has spent 35 years crafting adult books, called writing for children "extremely difficult."

Apps adapted both of his Badger Biographies titles, on the Ringling family and Jaggi, from adult books he previously wrote on the same subjects.

"It's boiling down the material in such a way that you get to the essence of it, in a way that communicates to young readers yet doesn't compromise the history," Apps said.

"I wasn't sure if I could explain things at a fourth-grade level," admitted Young Holliday, recalling reservations she had when collaborating with Malone on a publication previous to "Mountain Wolf Woman."

In some cases, it's weighing how to appropriately present the tainted personal lives of memorable people to a target audience of fourth- through eighth-graders, without whitewashing too much truth.

For all his legendary professional success, Curly Lambeau treated people badly and had serious character flaws that included infidelity, said Stuart Stotts, a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and author of "Curly Lambeau: Building the Green Bay Packers."

"Curly was a philanderer, but that is not really dealt with in the book," Stotts said. "We didn't feel that was appropriate for 10-year-olds. You say a little bit about how he was divorced three times, and something about his inability to get along with people, but don't go into the details of extramarital affairs."

However, "I think 7- to 10-year-olds are quite capable of understanding that people are complex," Stotts said. "I think at this age they are quite able to recognize that people may have good qualities and bad qualities at the same time. The subtleties of behavior are not at all beyond what they are dealing with in their own social situations."

"I think as a biographer it's our job to make people's character flaws clear if we are aware of them, but not to dwell on them. The purpose of the book is not to bring down Curly Lambeau, but we have to be realistic about who he was."

Similarly tricky adult situations led to Mountain Wolf Woman's story focusing not on her grown-up years, but on her childhood, Malone said.

"You want to make it real but you can't overwhelm young readers with details or information they can't handle," Malone said.


The series is not done. In fact, it's just getting started.

In the pipeline are potential books on "Fighting Bob" and Belle Case La Follette, Govs. Lucius Fairchild and Gaylord Nelson, rural doctor Kate Newcomb, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Cindy Bentley, a disabled Special Olympics athlete.

In addition to representing subjects of divergent backgrounds, Malone said she hopes to focus on people from various geographical corners of the state.

All of the books include an abundance of illustrations and break-out boxes that help readers further explore the topic and historical era. All also have a glossary, supplemental reading list and group discussion questions.

If she could find an interested author, Malone said she would love to produce a biography on naturalist and engineer Increase Lapham. Fur trader Soloman Juneau is also on her list.

And she would like to do a bilingual biography about migrant workers from Mexico. "We haven't gotten there yet, but that's definitely a direction I would like to go. There definitely are stories" about such workers and the people who brought them here, Malone said.

Malone said going back beyond the 19th century, to those who first populated the state, would be challenging in a biography format.

In historical fiction you can set a made-up person in a chosen era. But with biography you need factual details about an actual being. The difficulty, Malone said, is unearthing the documents that chronicle a particular life.