Fire: Hot Topics | Focus On

Fireworks explode in the night sky. Families gather around campfires. Signs in national forests gauge fire danger. Sirens blaring and lights flashing, fire engines speed through streets. Almost every day we experience fire’s presence in many ways. Through the centuries people have harnessed fire’s power to cook food, heat dwellings, and light buildings. At the same time, they have struggled to control its power to destroy cities and forests. A visit to a fire station introduces most students to the machines and equipment firefighters use in emergency situations. The selections in “Firefighters at Work” include stories of loss and recovery as well as overviews of the profession’s history and current technology. Managing fires in forests and grasslands generates more debate. The books listed under “Wildfires” reveal the natural part that fire plays in many ecosystems, the disagreement over prescribed burns, and the ways smoke jumpers and other specially trained firefighters work to contain fires that blaze out of control. “Historic Fires” includes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which revealed the abysmal working conditions of immigrants and spurred improvements in factory safety. Fiction and nonfiction selections give voice to victims and survivors of this event and others. Fire also plays a part in “Creation and Celebration.” Religious and national festivals use candles and fireworks to dispel darkness. Whether conducting experiments about the science of fireworks or creating candles, students can participate in hands-on activities. Fire has inspired a broad range of stories and poetry. From Peter Dickinson’s tale of a sorcerer seduced by fire’s power to S. D. Nelson’s adaptation of traditional Lakota stories, these books transport readers to different eras and cultures. One of Marilyn Singer’s poems declares that “Fire has contradiction at its heart,” bringing both comfort and terror. As the titles in this month’s feature illustrate, books about fire also provide multiple starting points to explore topics in history, science, and the arts.

Firefighters at Work

BUTLER, Dori Hillestad. F Is for Firefighting. illus. by Joan C. Waites. Pelican. 2007. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-58980-420-3. K-Gr 3–Although some alphabet entries provide a bit of firefighting history (bucket brigade), most of the paragraph explanations feature a current vehicle or piece of equipment. Full-page illustrations portray modern firefighting tools such as a quint truck, thermal imaging camera, and intersection control device. A good choice for younger students searching for facts, not fire-station stories. GANCI, Chris. Chief: The Life of Peter J. Ganci, a New York City Firefighter. Scholastic/Orchard. 2003. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-44386-9. Gr 3-7–Ganci recounts the life of his father, one of 343 firefighters who died on September 11, 2001. He documents the man’s rise through the ranks of the Fire Department of New York, his dedication to saving lives, and the dramatic events of his final day. The conversational tone and numerous family photographs capture the heroic spirit of a man passionate about his work. GORRELL, Gena K. Catching Fire: The Story of Firefighting. Tundra. 1999. pap. $16.95. ISBN 978-0-88776-430-1. Gr 4-8–Gorrell’s overview ranges from fire mythology to modern technology. Her informal style and quotations from firefighters draw readers into the drama of controlling blazes. Black-and-white photos and diagrams accompany explanations of the science of fire, accounts of historic fires, and the changes in firefighting equipment and techniques. Useful advice on fire prevention and safety plus first aid completes the volume. GRIESSMAN, Annette. The Fire. illus. by Leonid Gore. Putnam. 2005. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-24019-5. K-Gr 2–A routine evening turns dangerous for Maria, Pepito, and their mother. As smoke fills their house, they crawl to safety, but firefighters cannot save anything except a family photo and Maria’s teddy bear. Yet, Mama declares that “everything is safe” because of their escape. Pastel illustrations create a smoky haze in which glowing flames lighten the night sky. This compelling story should generate discussion. HUBBELL, Patricia. Firefighters!: Speeding! Spraying! Saving! illus. by Viviana Garofoli. Marshall Cavendish. 2007. RTE $14.99. ISBN 978-0-7614-5337-6. PreS-Gr 2–Pulsing rhymes and vibrant illustrations create the sense of the speed and energy involved in responding to a fire. Accompanied by their pet Dalmatian, the crew speeds through the streets to douse flames and rescue the occupants of a burning building. A good read-aloud choice before or after a fire-station visit. MASOFF, Joy. Fire! Scholastic. 2002. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-439-47217-3. Gr 3-7–Plenty of full-color photographs help answer questions about fire gear and equipment, techniques for controlling fires, and rescue work on land and water. Masoff’s lively style holds readers’ attention while conveying information on training, firefighting history, arson investigation, and a host of other topics. The author offers readers practical suggestions on what they can do to help prevent fires at home. WILLIAMS, Vera B. A Chair for My Mother. illus. by author. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 1982. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-688-00914-4; PLB $16.89. ISBN 978-0-688-00915-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-688-04074-1. PreS-Gr 2–As a young girl and her mother and grandmother save coins over months to buy a comfortable armchair, she recalls how people helped her family after they lost everything in a fire. Illustrations include patterned edges that reflect the vibrancy of the family’s spirit and the wonderful chair itself. Pair this depiction of recovery and resilience with Griessman’s story.


BEIL, Karen Magnuson. Fire in Their Eyes: Wildfires and the People Who Fight Them. photos by author. Harcourt. 1999. RTE $18. ISBN 978-0-15-201043-0; pap. $11. ISBN 978-0-15-201042-3. Gr 4-7–Beil follows men and women through smoke-jumper training camp, on the frontlines of fires near urban centers and in remote areas, and in crews using prescribed burns for wildland management. Dramatic color photos add to the immediacy of the accounts. BRYAN, Nichol. Los Alamos: Wildfires. World Almanac Library. 2003. PLB $30.60. ISBN 978-0-8368-5507-4; pap. $11.95. ISBN 978-0-8368-5514-2. Gr 5-8–Debate over the use of prescribed burns will likely intensify as more people build homes and businesses in fire-prone areas. Bryan discusses the issues in the context of the 2000 New Mexico fire. Set by the National Park Service to preserve the natural ecosystem, the fire spread out of control and eventually burned more than 45,000 acres. GODKIN, Celia. Fire! The Renewal of a Forest. illus. by author. Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2006. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-55041-889-7; pap. $11.95. ISBN 978-1-55455-082-1. Gr 1-4–A lightning-sparked fire burns acres of dry trees until rain quenches the blaze. Within weeks, plants sprout and animals return to begin the cycle of renewal. Small inset illustrations encourage readers to identify plants and animals in double-page paintings. Following the main story, Godkin provides more detailed information about forest habitat and how life returns after fires. MORRISON, Taylor. Wildfire. illus. by author. Houghton. 2006. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-618-50900-3. Gr 3-7–Dozens of small and large paintings provide numerous details about the people who work behind the scenes as well as those on the frontlines to control wildfires. Morrison explains how ecological fire patterns were disrupted for decades by management decisions and explains recent trends to use prescribed burns. A fascinating look at the technology, equipment, and techniques for dealing with wildfires. SIMON, Seymour. Wildfires. photos by author. HarperCollins. 1996. Tr $15. ISBN 978-0-688-13935-3; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-688-17530-6. Gr 4-7–Simon explains the role fire plays in forest and grassland ecosystems. Using the 1988 Yellowstone fires and their aftermath as an example, he notes how various animals and plants adapt, survive, and even thrive as part of this natural cycle. Large, dramatic photos of that blaze and the area’s renewal reinforce his account.

Historic Fires

ARMSTRONG, Jennifer. Magnus at the Fire. illus. by Owen Smith. S & S. 2005. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-689-83922-1. K-Gr 3–After years pulling a steam pumper, Magnus, a mighty gray horse, can’t understand how a motorized fire engine can replace him. He continues to jump the fence to answer each alarm. Despite his heroism, the animal eventually must move to the country home of the retired fire captain. Oil paintings depict Magnus’s monumental strength and showcase the era of fire horses explained in a note. AUCH, Mary Jane. Ashes of Roses. Holt. 2002. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-6686-9. Gr 6-9–Auch personalizes the statistics of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire through the voice of Irish immigrant Rose Nolan. Forced to endure horrible working conditions to earn a meager living, the 16-year-old nevertheless finds friends among her fellow workers. Although the actual fire and its aftermath take only 40 pages, readers share Rose’s fear, confusion, and loss because they know these characters so well. GREENE, Jacqueline Dembar. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Bearport. 2007. PLB $25.27. ISBN 978-1-59716-359-0. Gr 3-5–Greene admirably distills the dramatic events of the devastating 1911 fire in which 146 factory workers died. She also describes working conditions for immigrants and the outrage after the fire that led to significant improvements in safety. Vintage photographs, quotations from survivors, and brief profiles of five people connected to the events lend immediacy. INGOLD, Jeanette. The Big Burn. Harcourt. 2002. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-15-216470-6; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-15-204924-9. Gr 7 Up–The lives of three teens intertwine during a massive 1910 Montana-Idaho forest fire. Lizbeth and her aunt must flee their homestead as flames advance, while Jarett learns to fight fires on the frontlines. Seth and his company of Buffalo Soldiers arrive from Washington to help. Short narrative chapters and “field notes” weave fact and fiction into a gripping survival tale. JANECZKO, Paul B. Worlds Afire. Candlewick. 2004. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-2235-0; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3400-1. Gr 5-9-Brief narrative poems offer multiple views of events before, during, and after the 1944 Hartford, CT, circus fire that killed 167 people and injured more than 500. Voices of circus workers, children and parents, rescuers, and the dead rise from the pages in a chorus of emotions, including anticipation, fear, grief, and relief. An effective choice for reader’s theater. MURPHY, Jim. The Great Fire. Scholastic. 1995. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-590-47267-8; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-439-20307-4. Gr 5-10–Incorporating accounts of survivors of the 1871 Chicago Fire, Murphy provides multiple vantage points of the conflagration. Historical facts combine seamlessly with individual and collective tales of misjudgment, heroism, survival, and loss. Sepia-toned drawings and photos document the confusion and destruction. Most compelling are the city maps in each chapter, which show the expanding area consumed by flames. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

Creation and Celebration

CHECK, Laura. Create Your Own Candles: 30 Easy-to-Make Designs. illus. by Norma Jean Martin-Jourdenais. Williamson. 2004. pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-1-885593-52-8. Gr 4-8–Check emphasizes safety in her introduction to making a variety of candles and candleholders. Clear, simple instructions and uncluttered illustrations guide novices in creating molded and hand-dipped candles and in working with candle gel. Beeswax candles don’t require handling hot materials. Basic techniques and creative variations will produce candles for celebrations, decoration, and gifts. COBB, Vicki. Fireworks. photos by Michael Gold. Millbrook. 2005. PLB $23.93. ISBN 978-0-7613-2771-4. Gr 3-6–Cobb explains the chemical reactions that produce the brilliant patterns and colors of fireworks. In addition to discussing the basic elements combined in fireworks, she offers details about how the components are assembled in shells to produce various visual effects. Simple experiments such as using flame to see colors given off by various metals require adult assistance. DRAKE, Jane & Ann Love. The Kids Campfire Book. illus. by Heather Collins. Kids Can. 1998. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-55074-454-5. Gr 3-6–From selecting a fire site to extinguishing the last ember, this guide provides a wealth of activities for anyone planning a campfire evening. Cooking techniques and recipes offer food for the body while games, stories, and two dozen songs fuel the imagination. Facts about stars and nocturnal animals extend the pleasures of a summer tradition. HEILIGMAN, Deborah. Celebrate Diwali. National Geographic. 2006. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-7922-5922-0; PLB $23.90. ISBN 978-0-7922-5923-7; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-4263-0291-6. K-Gr 3-Fireworks play an important part in the festival of Diwali, celebrated each autumn by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains around the world. Photos transport viewers to India and other countries where preparations and observances include sweets, gifts, new clothes, and family gatherings. Light shows, sparklers, and firecrackers recall the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. LYONS, Mary E. Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith. Houghton. 1997. RTE $17. ISBN 978-0-395-72033-2. Gr 3-6-In 1925, 13-year-old Philip Simmons, the great grandson of slaves, began his blacksmith apprenticeship in Charleston, SC. Using fire to shape metal into practical and decorative objects, through the years he gained a reputation for outstanding craftsmanship. Photos show Simmons at his forge and showcase examples of his fences and gates, including one in the Smithsonian collection. ROSEN, Michael J. Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah. illus. by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. Holiday House. 2000. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1476-5. K-Gr 3-Hanukkah candles on the menorah shine a light of religious and ethnic acceptance in Rosen’s story. Family members recall the origins of the Jewish holiday and enjoy traditional foods and activities with neighbors and friends. Warm watercolor illustrations depict a multiethnic urban community.

Poetry, Folklore, and Fantasy

DICKINSON, Peter. Tears of the Salamander. Random. 2003. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-385-73098-3; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-385-90125-3; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-440-23823-2. Gr 6-10-In 18th-century Italy, 12-year-old choirboy Alfredo decides to become a castrati after his family dies in a mysterious fire. Intervening unexpectedly, Uncle Giorgio takes Alfredo to their ancestral home near Mt. Etna. Alfredo slowly realizes that Giorgio, a sorcerer, will sacrifice anyone. He must use music and cleverness to thwart his uncle’s ambitions. A complex look at the attractions of fire’s power. GRAHAM, Joan Bransfield. Flicker Flash: Poems. illus. by Nancy Davis. Houghton. 1999. RTE $16. ISBN 978-0-395-90501-2; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-618-31102-6. K-Gr 4-Among these concrete poems about light are many that create images of fire. Words form the body of a candle, the brief flame of a match, the sky-filling bursts of fireworks. Varying fonts, colors, and sizes of type give the text visual and verbal pizzazz that helps readers see the poetry itself as well as its subjects in new ways. HOBERMAN, Mary Ann. Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. illus. by Jenny Mattheson. Little, Brown. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-31614-840-5. PreS-Gr 3-Hoberman transports the famous cow from a Chicago barn to the countryside. Her lively adaptation of the familiar song about a “hot time in the old town” adds verses in which firefighters stage a dramatic rescue and carry the cow down from the barn roof. Stylized paintings give people and animals a toylike aura that emphasizes humor over danger. NELSON, S. D. The Star People: A Lakota Story. illus. by author. Abrams. 2003. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-8109-4584-5. K-Gr 3-After wandering from their village, Sister Girl and her younger brother flee a lightning-sparked prairie fire. The spirit of their grandmother, among the Star People, comforts them during the rainy night that follows. The vibrant colors and swirling shapes in the acrylic paintings recall traditional Lakota art. Nelson based this story on tales from his childhood. PARK, Linda Sue. The Firekeeper’s Son. illus. by Julie Downing. Clarion. 2004. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-618-13337-6. Gr 1-4-Bonfires helped people communicate over long distances in 19th-century Korea. When Sang-hee’s father injures his ankle, the boy must carry coals to the mountaintop to light the fire to signal that all is peaceful. Otherwise the king will send soldiers against the enemy, an exciting prospect that tempts him to shirk the task. Watercolors portray the historical setting and Sang-hee’s daydreams. Video/DVD versions available from Nutmeg Media. PRINGLE, Laurence. Imagine a Dragon. illus. by Eujin Kim Neilan. Boyds Mills. 2008. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-56397-328-4. Gr 2-5-Although tales about dragons in Western cultures often include lots of fire and smoke, some Asian dragons controlled the world’s waters and weather. Pringle offers an overview of dragon lore stretching from Norway to Egypt to China. Brief stories demonstrate similarities and differences among cultural representations. Dramatic acrylic illustrations emphasize the creatures’ size and power over humans and nature. SINGER, Marilyn. Central Heating: Poems about Fire and Warmth. illus. by Meilo So. Knopf. 2005. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-375-82912-3; PLB $17.99. ISBN 978-0-375-92912-0. Gr 3-7-Singer explores many facets of fire in 19 short poems. Stone Age fire bringers, modern firefighters, metal workers, and dragons all receive homage. So’s minimalist illustrations, entirely in red, suggest fire’s destructive impact on prairies, cities, and forests but also help listeners recall campfires, birthday parties, and fireworks celebration. A thoughtful consideration of fire’s complexity and contradictions.
Kathy Piehl is a librarian at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Media Picks

By Phyllis Levy Mandell Dot the Fire Dog. video. 10 min. with tchr’s. guide. Weston Woods ( 2003. ISBN 1-55592-514-6. $60; CD with hardcover book, ISBN 1-55592-623-1: $29.95. PreS-Gr 2–Dot the Dalmatian lives in a fire station. When the fire bell rings, everyone, including Dot, puts on their helmets, jumps into the fire truck, and rushes to fight the fire in this book by Lisa Desimini (Scholastic, 2001). Desimini’s brightly colored paintings are slightly animated, and lively music enhances the production. Dot’s fire safety tips conclude the production. Fighting Fire with Fire (The Nature of Things Series). video or DVD. 44 min. (closed captioned). Bullfrog Films ( 2005, 2007 release. video: ISBN 1-59458-662-4, DVD: ISBN 1-59458-663-2. $250 (Rental: $75). Gr 7 Up–Hosted by David Suzuki, this film examines a controversial approach to fighting wildland fires. Prescribed burns are set and controlled fires that clear debris and shape forest vegetation, helping to prevent massive fires. Stunning visuals of wildland fires and fire fighting crews fill the screen of this vibrant program. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. video or DVD. 13:38 min. with tchr’s. guide. Spoken Arts ( 2003. video, #9699: $49.95; DVD, #8034: $50. K-Gr 4–The John J. Harvey was launched in New York City in 1931 and had a distinguished career as a fireboat. She was refurbished in 1995 and travelled around New York Harbor. On 9/11, the fireboat was called out of retirement to pump water for the engines that fought fires at the site of the terrorist attacks. Maira Kalman introduces her story (Putnam, 2002) from the deck of the John J. Harvey. Her splashy illustrations are scanned iconographically. Stop Drop and Roll. video or DVD. 11:55 min. with tchr’s. guide. Spoken Arts ( 2002. video, #9682: $49.95, DVD, #8024: $50. K-Gr 3–Jessica’s class is studying fire safety, but the more she hears about smoke alarms and sprinkler systems the more she worries in this picture book (S & S, 2001) by Margery Cuyler. She voices her concerns to her family, and her parents promise to make safety changes at home. But when she mistakes the candles on her brother’s birthday cake for a fire, Jessica proves that she can be cool in an emergency. Arthur Howard’s delightful illustrations are scanned iconographically. Uprising (unabr.). 10 cassettes or 10 CDs. 11 hrs. Recorded Books ( 2007. cassette, ISBN 978-1-4281-7303-3: $88.75; CD, ISBN 978-1-4281-7308-8: $108.75. Gr 6-8–In this novel (S & S, 2007), Margaret Peterson Haddix steps back in history to present the fascinating story of three 15-year-old girls living in New York City in 1910. They work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where conditions are deplorable. When a catastrophic fire breaks out in the sweatshop, their lives are changed forever. Narrator Suzanne Toren is brilliant.

On the Web

Resources for Teachers Fire Prevention and Firefighting: Polymers that Save Lives. Polymer Science Learning Center, University of Southern Mississippi. (Accessed 6/24/08). Helpful notes and background information complement descriptions of activities related to the science of fire and explorations of combustion. Safety precautions, materials, and methods accompany each planning unit for secondary school teachers. The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. (Accessed 6/24/08). Created for the 125th anniversary of the famous fire, this online exhibition contains a wealth of written and visual primary-source materials. It concentrates on the historical facts of destruction and recovery and documents ways events have been portrayed in journalistic accounts, poetry, legends, songs, and other media. For Students Smokey U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council. (Accessed 6/24/08). Gr 2 Up–Animated games and activities related to wildfires, information on the science of wildfires and the tools and techniques of firefighting, and an explanation of Smokey’s origins with posters and other memorabilia are all available here. Sparky the Fire Dog. National Fire Prevention Association. (Accessed 6/24/08). K-Gr 4–Visitors to Sparky’s Web page can tour a gallery of fire trucks, view photo essays of families checking for home hazards, and download a template for a fire escape plan. The Triangle Factory Fire. Kheel Center, Catherwood Library, ILR School, Cornell University. (Accessed 6/24/08). Gr 6 Up–This online exhibit of documents, oral histories, photos, and other materials provides information about working conditions and labor reforms before and after the famous fire as well as accounts of the event itself. USFA Kids. U.S. Fire Administration. Emmitsburg, MD. (Accessed 6/24/08). Gr 1-4–Information about home fire safety, smoke alarms, and escape plans is reinforced by interactive games, puzzles, and coloring pages. The links to a teacher resource section include lesson plans related to the site.

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