Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett. Grades 5 and up. Chicago Review Press, June 2015. 168 pages. Review copy provided by my local library.
Book Talk: [I start this one off by reading from the Prologue on pages 1-2.]
"Some say they saw the flickering of a small flame on the side of the wall of the tent just above the men's bathroom. At first no one moved; surely the circus staff had it under control. But by the time the circus workers reached the fire, their meager buckets of water had little effect. As the crowd watched, the flame grew, spidering up the tent wall. Then someone yelled "Fire!" and the panic began. A frightened crowd of 6,000 spectators began jostling down the rickety bleachers and across the grandstand toward the exits...
"The tent burned to the ground in fewer than 10 minutes, and 167 people died. It was one of the worst tragedies the country had ever seen. From the ashes, questions arose: How did the fire start? Was it an accident? Could a madman have set it on purpose?...
"The mysteries surrounding the Hartford circus fire are still being explored today, more than 70 years after the disaster occurred. Professionals and amateurs alike have examined the evidence and argued their theories. Now it's your turn."
Big Top Burning tells the story of a tragic fire at the circus in Hartford, CT in 1944. Even today, people aren't certain exactly what happened, but this book gives you the facts and lets you make your own conclusions. This is a great read for anyone who likes exciting, true stories from history or adventure series like I Survived.
My thoughts: This is a pretty riveting story about a disaster that I literally knew nothing about. Plenty of archival photos help bring the time period to life and the action starts very quickly. Much of the book concentrates on the mysteries that arose after the fire was over and survivors started to piece together the remains of the dead.
I would be hesitant to hand this to sensitive readers (and will warn them when I booktalk this title) because the chapter about families identifying the bodies of dead children was especially harrowing to me. However, I tend to be a little more conservative about things like that and it might fascinate rather than bother most children. (Pro tip: "warning" children about gruesome content can be a great way to get them to clamor to take the book home!)
I think that kids who enjoy disaster stories (like Titanic, I Survived, etc.) will eat this one up. A friend of mine said on GoodReads that this book is "well-suited to the budding true crime reader" and I couldn't agree more.
Readalikes: Kids who enjoy reading about true disaster stories might also enjoy the book Fighting Fire!: Ten of the Deadliest Fires in American History and How We Fought Them by Michael L. Cooper.
Kids who like reading about disasters might also enjoy the fictional series I Survived by Lauren Tarshis or the Survivors series by Kathleen Duey and Karen Bale.