Alum Brings History Alive in Big Top Burning

October 06, 2015

Laura Woollett

Children’s Lit Alum Laura A. Woollett ’05GS on Writing Nonfiction for Kids

In 1944 a vicious fire decimated the main tent of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Hartford, Connecticut. There were 167 deaths including 59 children under 10, yet to this day, details of the fire are still murky. A new middle-grade book Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show on Earth, written by SLIS children’s literature alumna Laura A. Woollett, investigates the circus fire story in a compelling non-fiction account using primary source materials. Published by Chicago Review Press this past June, the book has received excellent reviews, described as “fascinating, devastating, and impeccably researched,” by Booklist. Woollett’s history encourages readers to think critically, leaving questions unanswered. It is “designed to encourage readers to ponder the gaps in our knowledge about the event,” according to School Library Journal.

While Big Top Burning is Woollett’s first book, she has extensive experience in the publishing industry and contributes to an online kids’ mystery serial The Great Connecticut Caper. Originally from South Windsor, Connecticut, Laura now lives in Massachusetts, where she is a full-time writer and editor of literacy curriculum for children in kindergarten through grade 12. She took a few minutes to speak with Infolink about being a writer, her process, and her time at Simmons.

What were you reading in your middle-grade years? 

I was a fan of mysteries from a young age. It would be hard not to be in my house—I grew up among piles of books by Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Robert Parker, which my parents read voraciously. My tastes were typical for a pre-teen in the late-1980s, early 1990s: R. L. Stein, Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, and a little Stephen King. I also read a lot of realistic fiction and historical fiction, but never would I choose nonfiction for fun. “Who does that?” I can hear my know-it-all child-self say. There was not as much narrative nonfiction available at the time, and nonfiction had (and still has, to some degree) the bad reputation of having only one purpose: for “writing reports.”

It was not until I took Susan Bloom’s class in nonfiction for children that I realized how transformative nonfiction could be. I read about subjects that normally would not interest me, and found I enjoyed learning something new. It opened my eyes to how little I (as an adult) knew about important things like water cycles, or why Adolf Hitler was able to come into power. Growing up, I learned a lot of whats and whos (what happens when larva make cocoons; who fought in the Battle of Britain) but I do not recall focusing much on the why. I recently asked a young reader who attended one of my talks if he liked reading nonfiction. His response was, “No. Well, except if it’s told like a story.” That is how we get kids hooked on nonfiction—through story. History, at its heart, is the stories of people’s lives. It is the story of why things happen. When we present these stories in dramatic fashion with fully realized characters, rising tension, and an exciting climax, we make the reading of nonfiction as enjoyable as the reading of any novel.

Talk about your work with literacy curriculum—how did you get into this area? Is it difficult to work within the confines of curriculum mandates? 

I have always been interested in education, though I discovered in college that being a classroom teacher was not the right path for me. I was working in the publishing industry when a job opened up at a small educational publisher in Cambridge. There I was able to learn about how children learn to read, why some struggle, and what kind of teaching is required to get these kids back on track. I love that the work I do helps kids learn the skills they need to be literate and thoughtful. I think this dovetails nicely with my expertise in children’s literature. When I create a reading program, I include the highest quality passages and stories. As far as meeting curriculum mandates such as the Common Core State Standards, I do not find them as restrictive as the media lead us to believe. When I develop a new program, or revise an old one, it is my job to help teachers find effective ways of engaging their students in learning.

You work on an online serialized mystery for kids, The Great Connecticut Caper. How far in advance do you write installments? What aspects of this format do you feel engage kids in a unique way?

The Great CT Caper is a collaboration of twelve Connecticut authors and twelve illustrators. I wrote Chapter 4, where the characters find themselves face to face with a set of dinosaur bones come to life. It was a fun project because all I had to go on were the first three chapters and illustrations. Once my chapter was done I had to wait for the subsequent chapters to be published online to find out what happens. The project is kind of a new take on the old Dickens serials that would appear in magazines. I think kids have enjoyed the project because it is fun to anticipate the next chapter and try to guess what will happen next.

Can you discuss your writing process for Big Top Burning? Were you previously familiar with the story of the 1944 Hartford fire?

Since I grew up in Connecticut, I knew about the Hartford circus fire. Friends of mine had relatives who had attended the circus that day, and one of my former high school teachers is a survivor. When I became interested in writing about disasters—inspired by Jim Murphy’s An American Plague and Jennifer Armstrong’s Shipwreck and the Bottom of the World—the Hartford circus fire seemed a perfect choice.

Quite a bit of primary source research went into the writing of Big Top Burning, including reading old newspaper articles, interviewing survivors, and sifting through the large circus fire archive at the Connecticut State Library. The archive is a treasure trove of materials, including police and witness statements, morgue documents, and official reports of the fire. Most of the photographs in Big Top Burning come from this archive as well.

I tried to share this moment in history in an engaging way by focusing on the stories of some central characters: the Cook family (nine-year old Donald, eight-year-old Eleanor, six-year-old Edward, and their mother Mildred), who attended the circus that day, and Robert Segee, the troubled fifteen-year-old circus employee. I focused on describing the investigations related to the fire’s unanswered mysteries. Was the unidentified body of a little girl, nicknamed “Little Miss 1565,” really Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson, and did Robert Segee set it? Because these mysteries remain unsolved, I had the unique opportunity to present all the evidence I could gather and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

With the explosion of popularity in well-crafted children's literature, the genre has proliferated into segmented subcategories. Do you think there is space for authors to write for all ages, and in many styles?

Yes. While I think writing in one genre can be useful to establish an author’s brand, I believe in writing the story that calls to you. Many authors have successfully written cross-genre. A great example is Kate Messner, who has written realistic fiction, mysteries, chapter books, picture books, and books on craft for adults. Writing is hard work, often done on top of day jobs and raising a family, so the most important thing is to choose a project you are passionate about.   

Tell us about your experience studying children's literature at Simmons.

My time at Simmons exposed me to the best in children’s literature, and my professors taught me to think critically and present my ideas clearly, confidently, and with solid evidence. These are skills that have benefited me in my career. Class presentations specifically stick in my mind, from my first, where I failed miserably (structuralism was difficult for me to grasp), to the successful discussion I led on the discomfort of being a white girl from the suburbs talking about issues of identity in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In the working world, I have been fortunate to receive many compliments about my presentation skills, and I attribute this to my experience at Simmons.