In Search of Goliathus Hercules, by Jennifer Angus (Albert Whitman & Company, March 1, 2013, upper middle grade) sets an unbeatably high standard for fictional flea circuses.
The reason for this wonderful circus is that the protagonist, 10 year old Henri, can speak to insects. It's set in the 1890s, when his mother leaves him with an elderly aunt in the states, while she sets out to search for his missing father in the jungles of British Malaya. His intense loneliness and boredom is broken one day when he has a conversation with a fly. He runs off (in large part to escape his aunt's truly, terribly sinister neighbor) and joins a circus...and there his gift comes truly into its own.
Because Henri can talk to the sideshow fleas, and win their cooperation and loyalty, he can make their act into something truly fantastic--especially when he brings a myriad of other insects on board! And I truly enjoyed this part of the book--meeting the individual fleas, who were fine characters in their own right, appreciating the world of miniature insect tricks, and being deeply entertained by Henri's life in the circus, and the new friends (humans as well as insects) that he makes.
But the sinister neighbor has followed him--she is on a quest for a mysterious insect, the Goliathus Hercules, and Henri, and his missing father, are key to finding it. And she is a horrible, live-insect eating creation of deep distrubingness (though her motivation--world wide power, and her plans for achieving it, were somewhat glossed over).
More disturbing, however (and I'm choosing to put in this spoiler so that you can decide if this book would freak your kids out) is that Henri realizes about half-way through the book that he is turning into an insect. Leaving the circus, he travels to Asia with the friends he had made there, to thwart the plans of his evil Nemesis, and maybe find his father, and Goliathus Hercules, himself....
And I have decided that I don't much care for it when protagonists turn into insects. I loved the flea circus, and can apply all sorts of complementary adjectives to the book--well written, engrossing, intelligent, vividly imagined, beautifully illustrated with pictures of insects and historical photographs, etc., and I will pause here to share an interior image scanned by a Goodreads reviewer:
But what I ended up feeling was repulsion. Especially when my mind (bad mind) offered me the possibility that turning into an insect, which Henri came to realize gave him a freedom and world of opportunity that he enjoyed very much, was a metaphor for adolescence, and I myself found growing up and leaving home disturbing enough without adding antennae. And I also don't like it when I am forced to confront the possibility that my own children will turn into insects (unlikely), or something equally foreign, like teenaged boys (almost certain).
Bottom line--didn't work for me personally, but here are other reviews that are more positive--Sharon the Librarian, Ms. Yingling Reads, Kid's Books 101, Wrapped in Foil
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher