Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game

A recent offering from Cormorant imprint Dancing Cat Books, The Circle Game is a beautiful if bittersweet rendering of Joni Mitchell’s classic, eponymous song in storybook form.

The Circle Game
The Circle Game, by Joni Mitchell, illustrated by Brian Deines

Mitchell’s lyrics provide the book’s text and act in tandem with Brian Deines’ accompanying illustrations; together, they attempt to transform the tale of a boy’s journey to adulthood from a song into a cohesive children’s story.

Mitchell’s text provides a third-person narrative of a young boy’s journey from a youth full of wonder and fear, through his impatient adolescence, finally reaching an adulthood that deviates from the boy’s youthful expectations. Throughout the story, Deines employs contrasting colour schemes to illustrate the song’s emotional register. The reader first encounters the young boy enjoying the childlike wonders of catching a dragonfly with a jar. Here, Deines chooses light yellows, oranges and reds to convey the gaiety of this simple activity. Balloons and the edges of oversized balls fill the background, evincing a carnival’s joyful feel. Once the boy becomes fearful of thunder, however, the tone transforms: with a page’s turn, dark purples and eerie greens overcome the earlier rosy tones, and the balloons are cast to the margins. Later, sunshine yellows and cartwheels give way to car wheels zooming past a high-rise building at night.

Joni Mitchell singing Both Sides Now and The Circle Game

Throughout this journey a brightly-lit carousel stands amidst the darkness. True to Mitchell’s chorus, a lament that we remain “captive on the carousel of time,” the ride separates each stage in the boy’s life journey. In conveying the carousel’s movement, Deines capitalizes on the recurrence of the chorus to convey the boy’s aging. As a young carousel rider he advances towards the reader; as an adolescent, the carousel has moved such that he faces sideways. By adulthood, the boy faces away from the viewer, able to return to his childhood only by turning to see his past behind him.

Brian Deines’ illustrations bridge the gap between visual media and Mitchell’s song. Indeed, where they sometimes seem too heavy for Mitchell’s light voice, they nonetheless perfectly suit her lyrics, and young readers who do not have Mitchell’s voice echoing in their ears may find more interest in these beautiful illustrations than in the narrative.

Beautifully conveyed, the book’s overall message remains bittersweet, slightly darker than the standard storytime fare: a presumably adult narrator watches a young boy’s growth, and relates to readers the joys, but also the frustrations, disappointments and, above all else, the inevitability of growing up until “the last revolving year is through.” Accordingly, the final page depicts a slightly darker carousel shining out into the purple void, yet still standing as a beacon of the wonders of childhood.

About the author

Saman Jafarian

Saman Jafarian holds a Master's degree in History from Dalhousie University. Her thesis examines antimodernism in interwar Canadian Children's Literature.

By Saman Jafarian