S672 Book Review: Big Top Burning

Title: Big Top Burning

Subtitle: The True Story of a Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth

Author: Laura A Woollett

Publication Info: Chicago Review Press, Inc. 2015

Suggested Age Range: Grades 5 and up



Big Top Burning is the true story of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus disaster of 1944. A fire broke out, and just a mere 10 minutes later, the big top had been destroyed. All told, 167 people lost their lives that day. Amongst those affected by the tragedy were Mildred Cook and her three children, Donald, Eleanor and Edward. Though injured, Mildred and Edward escaped the fire. Donald was rescued by another family and taken care of until he could be reunited. Edward later died in the hospital from his wounds. But the real mystery is what happened to little Eleanor Cook? The mystery of Eleanor and what started the fire is central to the book.

spectators run from the fire in 1944

Big Top Burning is factual without being graphic, even when talking about the dozens of children burned, and the bodies of people that were unrecognizable after the fire. Author Woollett uses photographs from that day to highlight what happened, as well as setting the background for why the circus was such a big draw during World War II America. Even when the book provides “answers,” it is quick to say that this is what the current thoughts are, but impossible to know for sure.

Big Top Burning is factual and fascinating. I learned a ton about something of which I had only a vague memory. Interestingly, the author also includes stories from famous families that are still a part of circus lore, like the Flying Wallenda’s, who were performing when the fire broke out.

Read-Alikes and other Books

Websites and Activities


  1. Hi Emily- This book sounds really interesting. I have not heard about this fire before. Your review definitely makes me want to read it though. Kind of left us on a cliffhanger there! I am glad that you added the fact that the book is not too graphic since it is for children. It’s something that some parents might be worried about.

  2. Hi Emily – I had never heard about this fire either, but your review was enticing, so I checked out several of your websites and activities. While doing this, I came across an interesting program put on by the Hartford Public Library to honor the 70th anniversary of this tragic fire. I thought you might find it interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsX-MKabaC8

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