Week 7: Aliens Are Coming! Then True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

Book summary: Before television, families gathered around the radio to listen to concerts, news, and stories. Mercury Theater, featuring Orson Welles, was one such “show” that was popular. This book tells the story of the most famous radio broadcast in history, one which launched Mercury Theater and Orson Welles into national fame (or notoriety). The War of the Worlds is a novel by H.G. Wells, and in 1938, Orson Welles decided to perform an adaptation of the work on his radio show. Although the show was introduced as a play, there was some panic as listeners imagined aliens actually invading. McCarthy tells the story through quotes from the actual broadcast, accompanied by drawings made after the style of the popular pulp magazines of the era.

My impressions: I think this book was fun; the pictures are engaging, and the story is funny. I’m certainly glad McCarthy gives the history lessons to go along with the book. I think the target audience, early elementary grades, are probably a generation whose great-grandparents would have been the ones to remember listening to the radio instead of watching television, and many may not have great-grandparents, so this is likely uncharted territory for them. I also think it’s a good lesson for them to learn in this culture of 24-hour news and social media, that not everything that sounds like news actually is.

Citation: McCarthy, M. (2006). Aliens are coming! The true account of the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Professional review:

” In an average American living room of 1938, folks gather around the radio for a night’s entertainment, when there’s a new bulletin: “Aliens are coming!” Orson Welles’ infamous Halloween trick, his October 30 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds,0 is greatly excerpted and put together with quirky, imaginative artwork that reinforces the fantasy. McCarthy sets the scene in a preface, ostensibly delivered by a radio commentator, and clearly identifies the speakers in colored type before each quote. Using a 1930’s art style, and a palette comprising mostly muted grays and reds, McCarthy evokes an era gone by, at the same time creating a cozy nostalgia. Even somewhat older, media savvy kids, who may view the gullibility of the characters with a disdainful eye, will be disarmed by the depictions of panicked faces and slimy Martians, eyes on stalks, that appear amid eerie red light. An abrupt ending notwithstanding, this is packed with age-appropriate thrills and scares. A lengthy author’s note includes necessary background on both figures…”

Karp, J. (2006). Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast [Review of]. Booklist, 102(11), 52.

Library uses: I think a fun story time with older children (young elementary ages) would be to create a fake news story, to talk about hyperbole and sensationalism. Alternately, we could create aliens to display with the book around Halloween, especially next year for the 75th anniversary of the broadcast.

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