Friday, September 14, 2007

Tackling Tragedy - World's Afire

I'm continuously searching for children's/YA stories told in verse -- it's a form I love. I've been enjoying Paul Janeczko's poetry, most recently A Kick in the Head, so was delighted to find he'd written a verse novel -- World's Afire. The subject of the novel was an interesting choice though -- the 1944 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus disastrous fire in Hartford. I wonder if a lesser-known writer would have even been considered if they'd suggested writing about such a tragedy? I find that my younger daughter is particularly afraid of fire, so I wouldn't suggest she read this, but, perhaps, for kids who need something a little edge to draw them into a story -- and to poetry -- it would be a good choice.

Of course it was wonderfully crafted. Told in three parts, through the eyes of 29 characters (e.g., Willard Owens, Circus Buff; Dixie Levine, Circus Attendant; Eddie "Freak Man" Carlyle, Sideshow Fan, etc.), each of whom is given a poem. Here's an excerpt:

Ralph Nesbitt
Eighteen-Year-Old Animal Trainer

I was working with the elephants
near the main ten
when the fire started --
a lick of flame
in the top of the tent.
My first thought was,
How're those people going to get out of there?
Then somebody yelled,
"Get the elephants out!"
Nobody wanted 'em to charge the crowd.
I started shouting,
"Tails! Tails!"
and the herd lined up
just like they'd been taught.

I was too scared to be proud of them.
We marched them out,
prodding them with bull hooks
when they dawdled.
I kept one eye on the herd
one on the tent,
black smoke pouring out
like from a hundred locomotives
and wondered again
about those poor people:
How're they ever going to get out of there?
When the herd was safe,
I cried.

- Paul Janeczko, World's Afire

Here's a summary:
Janeczko focuses on a twentieth-century tragedy that has been the subject of several prose works in his original 2004 work Worlds Afire. On July 6, 1944, a tragic fire erupted in the main tent of the Barnum & Bailey Circus as the greatest show on earth performed in Hartford, Connecticut. In its wake, the fire left 167 men, women, and children dead and over 500 others injured, in one of the greatest New England tragedies of the twentieth century. In twenty-nine poems that recount, first, the circus opening, then the fire and, finally, the tragic aftermath, Janeczko gives voice to the survivors, as well as those destined to die. Even the arsonist is allowed to express himself through the poet's free verse in a "verse novel" that a Kirkus Reviews writer described as a "rich, challenging poetry experience" that "creates an overview of a community in tragedy." Although his verses capture the human tragedy rather than the graphic horror of the event, as Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman noted, "the combination of a thrilling circus and true catastrophe will grab middle-schoolers" cautious about investing in reading poetry.

While I'm glad I read this, and enjoyed each of the "stories in miniature" that each poem provided, I just can't imagine the children I would recommend or read this to. I'm sure a skillful teacher or librarian could craft a way of introducing this book to children. Your thoughts?

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