Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

World's Afire

World's Afire

Paul B. Janeczko
For ages 12 and up
Candlewick Press, 2003   ISBN: 0763622354

We are in Connecticut and it is early July in 1944. It is a hot day and the town is full of excitement because the circus is coming to town. Buddy Mullens is the twenty-four hour man and is preparing for the arrival of the circus, putting up banners for the children to see. Then the circus arrives and everyone gets a preview of the coming entertainment as the animals and wagons go by. It is the beginning of what everyone thinks will be a wonderful event, but which turns out to be an appalling tragedy.

This was a time where the country was in the middle of a savage fight, a war that was consuming young men at an alarming rate. The circus was something that would take the unhappiness of the war off the minds of the townsfolk. It would help them forget the real world for a little while. A soldier invalided home also tries to forget the horrors he has seen but he doesn’t not think the circus will help quiet the voices he hears in his head, the voices of his dead comrades.

From a “Seatman” we get the first inkling, a foreshadowing, of coming trouble. A show had been missed due to the late arrival of the circus, and that is bad luck. Still the show must go on, back luck or no. For a short while all goes well. Then all hell breaks loose when a fire breaks out, and we listen to the voices of those who survived the tragic event and those who did not. It is heartbreaking to know that the brave father who saved the lives of countless children did not survive. It is remarkable to hear how the band, like the one that played on the Titanic as she sank, kept on playing surrounded by panic, fear, and death. Each person’s account fills in more of the picture. We see the fire from many different points of view, which provides us with a lot of information and with a very real picture of what it was like to be there.

In the final part of this remarkable collection of poems we experience the aftermath. There are bodies to identify, families to notify, and lives to rebuild. Possibly the saddest story is that of a little girl who had died and whose body was never claimed. A police detective took it upon himself to try to find the relatives of the child, and when he was unsuccessful, he took on the role of the chief mourner for the little victim.

Each of these poignant and very visual poems tells a story in miniature. Together they provide us with a complete and rounded picture of what occurred on July 6th, 1944, in Hartford. With a minimum number of words the author is able to set a stage, describe a catastrophe, relive the aftermath, and touch the hearts of his readers. This is a story of courage, loss, and a dreadful waste of human life.