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The Day the River Caught Fire

How the Cuyahoga River Exploded and Ignited the Earth Day Movement

Illustrated by Jessie Hartland
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About The Book

Discover the true story of how a 1969 fire in one of the most polluted rivers in America sparked the national Earth Day movement in this nonfiction picture book by award-winning author Barry Wittenstein and beloved illustrator Jessie Hartland.

After the Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, the Cayuhoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire almost twenty times, earning Cleveland the nickname “The Mistake on the Lake.” Waste dumping had made fires so routine that local politicians and media didn’t pay them any mind, and other Cleveland residents laughed off their combustible river and even wrote songs about it.

But when the river ignited again in June 1969, the national media picked up on the story and added fuel to the fire of the recent environmental movement. A year later, in 1970, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency—leading to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts—and the first Earth Day was celebrated. It was a celebration, it was a protest, and it was the beginning of a movement to save our planet.

About The Author

Photo courtesy of the author

Barry Wittenstein writes narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. His book A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, received the 2020 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. It was named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year and nominated for an NAACP Image Award, among other honors. Barry lives with his wife in New York City. To learn more, please visit or @BWittBooks on Twitter. 

About The Illustrator

Photo courtesy of the illustrator

Jessie Hartland is the author and illustrator of many nonfiction titles for young readers, including Our Flag Was Still There, which was named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year. The New York Times praised her “joyful folk-art illustrations” in Harlem Grown, written by Tony Hillery. She has painted murals at a Japanese amusement park, designed Christmas windows for Bloomingdale’s, and put her mark on ceramics, watches, and all sorts of other things. She has done drawings for many magazines and newspapers, including The New York TimesTravel and Leisure Family Club, Martha Stewart Kids, and Bon Appétit. She lives in New York City. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (March 28, 2023)
  • Length: 48 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534480834
  • Ages: 4 - 8

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Raves and Reviews

"A lively account of a watershed event."


"A engaging story ... informative."


Awards and Honors

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Intermediate Title

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this illustrator: Jessie Hartland