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Burning Up

By: Caroline B. Cooney


Thematic Connections

Family & Relationships

Grades 7 up


Fifteen-year-old Macey Clare discovers dark secrets about her family and neighbors as she uncovers the truth behind a 38-year-old fire that threatened the life of an innocent victim in her community.

Macey decides to investigate a fire that occurred in her Connecticut town in 1959 for a local history project. Her teacher opposes the idea, and her parents and grandparents don’t want to talk about it. Macey is also involved with a student volunteer group that is assigned to help an inner-city church paint rooms for a day care. After an arsonist sets fire to the church, Macey becomes even more determined to help the inner-city kids and to find out the truth about the fire of 1959.

Burning Up is a contemporary novel with an element of mystery. The activities offered in this guide will give students the opportunity to explore how the racial problems of the 1950s effected change in our nation. They will be asked to think about the racial challenges of today, and what they can do to make a difference.

Book Talk Exerpt -

Venita raised her head oddly. Macey stared at Venita and found herself imitating the movement of Venita’s chin,
and so the faint smell of smoke entered Macey’s nostrils, too, and penetrated her brain, and she and Venita stared at each other. . . .
They stepped into the narrow hall. . . .
To their left were the painters in the last five rooms. . . .
To their right was a gray puff. . . .
The gray puff turned the corner like a locomotive, and then it was an engine on fire, and the flames took the paint off the wall and the wind from the outside door flung fire and smoke toward the girls and Venita screamed, “Fire!” and Macey screamed, “Get out! Everybody out!” and they turned left because the fire had captured the right, and by the time Macey and Venita had gone the ten steps to the next Sunday School room the fire had caught their heels and Macey saw Austin and Isaiah, and then the smoke was upon her and bit her eyes so cruelly she had to close them, and she felt the fire on her back.


Caroline B. Cooney grew up in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. She attended various colleges, where she studied music, art, and English. She began writing in college, and by the time she was 30 years old, she had written 10 unpublished novels. Today, Cooney is the author of many award-winning novels, and is considered one of the most popular writers for young adults. Her books include the bestselling The Face on the Milk Carton and its companion novels Whatever Happened to Janie? and The Voice on the Radio. She lives in Westbrook, Connecticut.

May 10 in Geneva, New York

Louisa, Sayre (rhymes with fair), Harold

Inspiration for writing
I love a good story. I love to make things up.

. . . hobbies
I read a lot. I buy books. I’m in a library (I use several) or a bookstore almost every day because I have to be around other people’s books, too. I sing in several choirs, or play the piano for them.
. . . foodsI’m omnivorous.
. . . booksI read series books: Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, was the reason I went to nursing school. But my favorite series, and the only one I saved, was Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager.


Interdisciplinary Connections

–The fire of 1959 was not in the local newspaper because the purpose of the newspaper in those days was to make the town look good. Ask students to take the information gathered by Macey and write a story about the fire that would appear in the newspaper today.
Ask students to explain the metaphor: “He [Austin] felt as if Macey were driving a new car toward a high cliff”
(p. 128). What is the new car? What is the cliff?

LANGUAGE ARTS/ART–Ask students to write the letter that Macey sends to Venita’s grandmother after Venita is killed. Instruct them to illustrate the letter using symbols that represent Venita’s contribution to her community.

SOCIAL STUDIES–The ’50s were very volatile times regarding race relations. Divide the class into two groups and ask them to research one of the following: desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, or the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Then, ask each group to stage an “on-site” television news report about each event. Include interviews with key figures and people in each community.
The events of the ’50s caused Congress and the Supreme Court to seriously study racial inequality in the United States. Send the students to the library to research the various civil rights acts that evolved from this period in history. Make a time line that illustrates the development of these various laws. How have the civil rights laws made a difference for women and children in our present society?

DRAMA–Send students to the library to search for a poem or reading that might be an appropriate eulogy for Venita. Possible choices might include “Hold Fast to Dreams” by Langston Hughes or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Ask them to prepare a dramatic reading of their selection and present it to the class.

MUSIC–Ask students to locate songs like “We Shall Overcome” that grew out of the civil rights movement. Instruct them to study the lyrics and suggest appropriate songs that they might dedicate to Venita and Wade Sibley. Some students may enjoy performing some of the songs for the class.

CAREERS–Macey uses good research skills to uncover the truth about the fire of 1959. She also
knows that she wants to do something to change her community. What are her best career options? Find out the educational requirements for each career that she might consider.

Thematic Connections

FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS–Ask students to compare and contrast Macey and her friend Austin’s families. Macey spends so much time with her grandparents that she really has two homes. In which does she receive the most attention? What does Austin want and need from his parents? How does his grandfather serve as a father figure? What does Macey's local history project reveal about both families? How does her project change her relationship with
her family?

–Rebuilding trust with those who have betrayed or disappointed you often takes time. How do students know that Macey has lost trust in her family? Have the class discuss what Macey’s parents and grandparents might do to regain her trust. Ask for volunteers to role-play a conversation they could have. How might talking about one’s feelings help build a better relationship?

RACISM–Macey’s mother says, “We’re as segregated as the South ever was. We’re just sly about it” (p. 74). How does being sly relate to covert racism? Ask students to identify passages in the novel that indicate overt and covert racism. What might students of all races do to prevent acts of racism in their school and community? Have students find incidents in the novel where the adults make excuses for their community’s attitude toward other races.

–When a fire breaks out at Good Shepherd and threatens the lives of the teenage workers, their volunteerism comes to an abrupt halt. How does responsible behavior sometimes require taking risks? Do Macey’s parents feel responsibile for helping the poor? How did Venita take responsibility in her community? What does Macey learn from Venita? At the end of the novel, Wade Sibley challenges Macey to “step forward” and accept responsibility for making changes in her community. Encourage students to discuss how Macey and her friends might accomplish this challenge.


Pre-Reading Activity

Engage the class in a discussion about racism. Explain to them the difference between overt and covert racism. Have them write a journal entry about a time when they have witnessed or experienced some form of racism. Then ask students, by a show of hands, to indicate whether their journal entry reflects overt or covert racism. Which type of racism is the toughest to identify?


Vocabulary/Use of Language

Ask students to make a note of unfamiliar words and try to define the words from the context of the sentence. Such words may include: respelled (p.4), demographic (p.14), contagion (p.32), au courant (p.66), moguls (p.99), catapulted (p.102), and coagulated (p.190).


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