The Day the River Caught Fire – Perfect Picture Book Friday

In celebration of Earth Day, I’m featuring a book about how the event came to be.

(Also, enjoy the sibilance of the first sentence you’ll see below.)

Text©Barry Wittenstein Illus. ©Jessie Hartland
On a sticky and sunny Sunday in the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland did something rivers should never do.
Text©Barry Wittenstein Illus. ©Jessie Hartland

Yes, it caught fire. Surprisingly, this was more of a common occurrence than many realized. Some thought it was just business as usual. Like the proverbial frog that doesn’t leave the boiling pot of water because it’s gotten used to the heat, many in urban areas where factories proliferated had gotten used to the stench, the oily sludge, the animal body parts, etc. floating down the river.

But this latest fire happened in 1969, six years after the environmental blockbuster of a book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, was published. It was a new era of reporting on the environmental damage caused by industry. And a new era of citizen activism. Cleveland’s first Black mayor, Carl Stokes, held a news conference a day later, declaring a war on pollution.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This essential lesson in our environmental history (one that we should NEVER forget), including the creation of the EPA and the passing of the Clean Air and Water Acts is told in an engaging, gross, and factual way that kids will love. Back matter includes an environmental timeline that doesn’t pull punches; a list of videos, organizations, books, and websites where kids can learn more; and an Earth Day website that shows how kids can get involved.

The illustrations, rendered in gouache, make their point while keeping the topic from being too grim. It feels very kid-friendly.


For more ideas about how to become an activist, pair this book with NO WORLD TOO BIG: YOUNG PEOPLE FIGHTING GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE by Lindsay Metcalf, Keila Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley.

For a more science-oriented approach, pair this book with Patricia Newman’s A RIVER’S GIFTS, and use her LitLink to discuss the importance of river basins and to discover river basins in your area.

Watch this video about the damage caused by oil spills.

Do this oil spill cleanup activity. Why is oil hard to clean up? Why can’t you just dump a bunch of soap in water?

Title: The Day the River Caught Fire: How the Cuyahoga River Exploded and Ignited the Earth Day Movement

Author: Barry Wittenstein

Illustrator: Jessie Hartland

Publisher: Paula Wiseman, Simon & Schuster 2023

Themes: Environment, rivers, pollution

Ages: Elementary school

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

9 thoughts on “The Day the River Caught Fire – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    Perfect Earth Day share. I remember this event. I worked for the Ohio Dept of Natural Resources in the 1970s and was involved in the Coastal Zone Management program and clean-up of lakes and rivers. So this book would interest me.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Wow, Patricia! That must have been very rewarding work! In the late 80s, I worked for Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund, founded by one of the authors of the Clean Water Act. I learned about Superfund sites and drinking water contamination. It was eye-opening to say the least. And we still have millions of people in the U.S. who can’t drink the water from their taps. Those who say that industry can regulate themselves have turned a blind eye to the facts.

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