Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2018-11-27 
Review Score: 4 out of 5 star From 17 user ratings

"This is a compelling read, well-suited to the budding true crime reader. I had never heard of the Hartford circus fire, and this book provides a fascinating look at the tragedy (crime?) and makes me want to find out more. The author does a commendable job of setting up the backdrop to the disaster and introducing key players before relating the events of the fire and its terrible aftermath. The second half of the book delves into an unsolvable true crime narrative examining the potential for arson and the mystery of a little girl who died in the fire and was never identified with 100% certainty. More questions remain than answers, but this book gives the reader an excellent introduction to the ways in which small missteps can add up to a massive tragedy, as well as the unreliability of crime solving (kind of a junior Serial podcast style story, exploring the unfortunate nature of trying to solve a mystery after much time has passed). " said.

"Recipient of the International Literacy Association (ILA) Children's and Young Adults' Book Award for new authors. Worthy of giving a book talk in the 4-6th grade classroom and leaving in the class library for a kid to snatch up. Woollett, the author, has thoroughly researched this disaster and written a simple, yet compelling narrative of what happened and the questions that were left unanswered. I didn't want to put thie book down. There are clear themes worthy of student-led discussions and written response - What is the role of community when disasters like this happen? Why is it important to have plans for any type of local disaster? What are current events where communities have worked together like this one? What is the role of regulation and rules and policies in guaranteeing safety? When are there too many regulations, etc? I can see students using this as a mentor text for their own research into a particular disaster--researching multiple aspects, different points of view, etc. Congrats to this new author. I'm looking forward to reading the next book she writes for kids." said.

"Meh. It was alright for what it was. I would probably let my middle schooler read it, as a good introduction to the subject. I think the writer combined some of the details to simplify the narrative but made them not as truthful.
One of the biggest examples of that is whom she names as the president of the circus and that he was ordered to pay 4 million in damages. John Ringling North had been the president until about a year before the fire, his cousin Robert was in charge during the fire. John did win back the circus 4 years after the fire. Also, they didn't have a set amount to pay it was based on the claims that came in, in the end they paid out 4 million.
I understand the intended audience for this book needing to be spared the worst of the horrific of the details, but the details they can have should be as truthful as possible. It also seemed odd that little miss 1565 picture wasn't in the book at all. That was one of the pictures that ran in the newspaper of the day deemed okay for those audiences.
" said.

"BIG TOP BURNING: THE STORY OF AN ARSONIST, A MISSING GIRL, AND THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH by Laura A. Woollett tells the true story of a circus fire tragedy and its aftermath.

Set in 1944, this well-written work of nonfiction for middle-grade readers describes the terrible fire that killed 167 people including 59 children. The book explores the many mysteries surrounding the disaster including the cause of the fire, criminal investigations, and identification of bodies. While some questions remain unanswered, youth will be intrigued by the scope of the story.

Filled with amazing photographs, survivor interviews, and other primary source materials, the book also contains an author’s note, notes, bibliography, and index. Wollett brings the incident alive by combining the historical accounts with the mystery surrounding the disaster. The author does a stellar job describing the gripping story in an age-appropriate way. For example, she focuses on the mystery of an unidentified little girl. Youth will enjoy evaluating the evidence and drawing their own conclusions.

This short book would be a good choice for reluctant readers looking for an interesting history project topic. Display it with other books about tragic fire disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

To learn more about the author, go to

Published by Chicago Press on June 1, 2015.
" said.

"Big Top Burning chronicles the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which occurred during a performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barney & Bailey Circus. While the spectators were watching the Flying Wallendas high wire act, the big top tent caught fire. In only 10 minutes the whole thing had burned down, killing 167 people and injuring many more. It is one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history.

Illustrated with black and white photographs from before, during and after the fire, and sprinkled with numerous quotes from spectators and victims, the readers feel like they’ve gone back in time to witness events firsthand. Although told in chronological order (with the disaster described at the first part of the book), the story does not lose impact because of the lingering questions that remain even to this day. How did it happen? Was it an accident or was it arson? Why were so many people trapped and killed? The event is not only a tragedy, but also a lasting mystery.

Woollett has done a wonderful job of keeping the story interesting, without slipping either into sensationalism or being pedantic. Her background in writing for reluctant readers is evident, and this title would be a good choice for older reluctant readers. She also deserves credit for the impressive amount of research she must have undertaken, as evidenced by the copious notes section in the back matter.

This is nonfiction at its finest.

Originally posted at Wrapped in Foil blog.
" said.

"July 6, 1944 came to be known as, “the day the clowns cried”. Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show on Earth, by Laura A. Woollett, describes the events of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus fire of Hartford Connecticut. The afternoon performance was attended by 6,000 to 8,000 people. In a fire that lasted only ten minutes, 165 people died and more than 700 were injured.

The book includes black and white photos, a drawing of the layout of the tent, and scans of some of the evidence from the investigations that followed the fire. As I read this, I kept forgetting that this book is intended for a younger audience (I read this on a tablet, so the small page count wasn’t as evident as it would have been had I been holding a printed copy). For some, the subject matter may seem to be too much for children, but I think the book provides an important historical lesson for children and adults alike.

The paragraphs often switch from person to person without warning. While this may seem confusing to some, I think this constant hopping of perspectives opens a small window into the chaos the community must have felt during and after the fire. I was comforted by how the community came together after the tragedy. To this day, the people of Hartford still remember.

Humanity has a tendency of looking back on historic events and claiming that they can never be repeated. And time and time again, humanity is proven wrong. Big Top Burning offers a sliver into an event that could possibly have been avoided, and it is books such as this that remind us of the dangers of forgetting the past. I definitely recommend this book.
" said.

"Big Top Burning by Laura A. Woollett is a nonfictional recounting of a horrific event in American history: the 1944 Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus fire. On the afternoon of July 6, 1944, thousands of citizens crowded into a circus tent in Hartford, Connecticut, excited to witness the wonders that the Ringling Brothers promised. However, only minutes after the circus began, the big top caught fire, leading to the deaths of 167 people and the injuries of hundreds more. Big Top Burning provides a fairly short, very simple account of a runaway arsonist, a missing eight-year-old, and many other details surrounding the catastrophic fire that stopped even the greatest show on Earth in its tracks.
Big Top Burning is an informational yet enjoyable book. Author Woollett includes numerous details that allow for a riveting, educational read. Also, despite the many unclear events revolving around the fire of July 1944, Woollett is unfailingly objective and unbiased, always including both sides of the story. Besides the great text of Big Top Burning, multiple photographs are also featured in the book, helping readers to understand and appreciate the tragedy that occurred. In fact, the only disappointment of the book is that the questions raised throughout its pages, such as how the fire started and whether the missing child was ever found, are never answered; the mystery has yet to be solved.
Big Top Burning is a wonderful choice for children around the fifth grade level who take interest in historical mysteries. I encourage young readers to venture into its pages and try to solve the mystery of the fire that nearly destroyed the greatest show on Earth.
review by Isabella T., age 14, Memphis Mensa
" said.

" It was a quick read. I thought it was interesting to read first hand accounts and learn about the tools (or lack thereof) used to investigate. It is a sad true story. " said.

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