________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 8 . . . . December 7, 2007


Burn: The Life Story of Fire.

Tanya Lloyd Kyi.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2007.
143 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-081-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-082-5 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Fire-History-Juvenile literature.
Civilization-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Fern Reirson.

*** /4


“Fire! The school’s on fire!”

Pushing people out of the way, a boy named Teddy yelled, “I’m getting out of here.” He stepped through the jagged glass and leaped into the air, landing on an awning a story below. Then, grabbing a drainpipe, he swung down until he could jump the final distance to the ground. As he ran off to find help, several other students copied his manoeuver………

Michele was too scared to jump – it was too far to the ground and the students nearest the windows were pushing and shoving one another  ……

Michele could see no way out. Then, suddenly, a blaze of orange filled the room and the clothes on her back seemed as if they were alive. The flames burst in and attacked the desks, the floor, the students’ clothing. Without thinking, Michele scrambled to the window a final time and hurled herself outside…

When the fire hoses finally doused the flames, 92 children and three nuns were dead. Another 75 students lay injured at seven different hospitals in the Chicago area. After searching through the crowds of children outside the school, then driving from hospital to hospital, Michele’s mother and father eventually found her at Saint Anne’s Hospital, wrapped in bandages. She had a fractured skull and third-degree burns. But after four months of skin grafts and antibiotics, she was allowed to go home for the first time at Easter. As an adult, she founded a rehabilitation program for burn victims.

Burn:The Life Story of Fire opens with this tragic but engaging story which draws readers into a most, unusual and neglected topic: fire. This nonfiction book is formatted to look like a paperback novel, with a simple cover which has a photograph of a single burning match.  The image is powerful, as is fire itself. Readers will be surprised to learn about the many aspects of fire we take for granted or ignore until a tragedy occurs involving fire. 

     From the earliest known use of fire by humans, to the ongoing rebirth of planet Earth from within, readers will explore a wide range of cultural stories from around the world interwoven with informational related text. The relationship between cultural groups and fire is distinct as their individuality in customs, traditions and stories. Kyi understands that storytelling is an effective manner to engage her readers from the beginning to the end of this book. Burn is a good example of not only how fiction and fact can transverse genres but also how they are essential in developing a deep understanding of a topic.
     Surprisingly, arson, one of the most prevalent aspects of fire in western cultures, is treated in only a general manner. It is unclear whether this topic is too complex to be addressed fully or if the author struggled to provide detailed information while being cognizant that the age group targeted in this book is also the group most likely to commit arson. My own research found that the most prevalent age of arsonists is ages 12 – 14. Kyi states: “These fire setters are usually male, with below-average intelligence and education. Their girlfriends have broken up with them, their bosses have fired them, or their parents have punished them.”

     My having watched a young couple I know struggle with losing their home to arson this summer made this topic all the more pertinent and real to me, as a reader and person. Burn is unsettling, as few books might be in Canadian schools. Considering that arson causes more than one seventh of all fires in Canada, this is a book with which librarians and teachers will want to introduce to and discuss with students. 

     For those students interested in a career as a fire fighter, Burn provides both a wide and deep examination of many aspects about fire history. It is an ideal book for project or inquiry based learning as readers will get an in-depth look into a topic often ignored. The subheadings, information boxes, list of source books and index, help to make this book enjoyable to digest. One cannot help wishing, however, that it was formatted in the style of the Dorling Kindersley “Eyewitness” books, with photographs, interspersed with text, as images of fire and its effect are often the most powerful ones we will ever encounter.  

     Though comprehensive in its examination of fire, Kyi’s book leaves readers wondering whether fire ‘produces or consumes more,’ as one of life’s greatest essential but mysterious elements (p. 134).


Fern Reirson is a teacher-librarian at Jackson Heights School in Edmonton, AB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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