scorecardresearch Skip to main content
the story behind the book

Looking for the helpers in tragedy

david wilson for the boston globe

Growing up in Connecticut, Laura Woollett said she grew accustomed to seeing annual newspaper articles commemorating the 1944 Hartford circus fire and asking for the public’s help in identifying one small victim, the child known as “Little Miss 1565,” for her morgue identification number. Naturally attracted to stories of disaster and survival, Woollett knew that the circus fire was a perfect choice for her debut book for middle-grade readers: “It has disaster; it has a mystery; it has a circus!”

In “Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth,” Woollett wanted to tell an exciting tale but also to focus on the positive stories that surround a tragedy.


Childless when she began writing, Woollett said her “emotional reaction to the book changed dramatically” after she had a child herself. “One of the hardest things for me about the book in general, talking about it, is the fact that so many of the victims were children.” She takes heart, she said, from a famous quote by Fred Rogers about how his mother told him to “look for the helpers” when watching sad stories. There were many helpers that day in Hartford. “People whisked [the injured children] away to the hospital and took care of them,” she said. “Some of those kids were in the hospital for months and months; the nurses became like second mothers to them.”

“Kids know bad things happen,” Woollett went on, adding that her book is intended for children ages 10 and up. “But you don’t need to be graphic, and you don’t need to sensationalize it. You just need to be truthful.”

Woollett will read Thursday at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at