Picture books about circuses are usually fantasies, with made-up characters and settings. This is an exception because Gifford founded and runs her own circus, and Smith’s illustrations are based on observation. Which does not mean the book lacks magic. Enchantment is Gifford’s business, and her text, with its “bright, dusty people” and “scarlet velvets and gold cables and twinkling lights on silver ropes”, weaves a spell. It is the story of a sad girl with a sick mother, who goes in search of her lost pet chicken and finds a place of dreams and, implicitly, her happy future. Friendly, old-fashioned images, rich in detail of circus acts, caravans and countryside, show co-operation, inclusivity, loving families and, in the end, the power of make-believe.
Nell and the Circus of Dreams, written shortly before her death, was her first book for children, and captures that "land of pure magic" by means of a simple narrative with an intensely personal feel. "That summer Nell's mother was so ill that she did not get out of bed," the story begins, with a picture of a little girl playing on her own in the garden of her family's farmhouse. But when Nell befriends a lost chick, and tells it her dreams and fears, the magic begins – and one morning she wakes to find her longed-for circus camped in a nearby meadow, filled with horses and acrobats. "The dew soaked her feet and her dreams were scattered all about." Nell is invited into a caravan for tea, and then taken into the big top, where the children are juggling silver hoops and dancing on the back of a white horse: "The mother sailed through the air and someone took Nell's hand as if to say, 'Come on, fly with us!' ... Nell wished that this beautiful circus of dreams could last forever."