SPOOKED! A 1938 Radio Broadcast Reveals Our Gullibility

Cindy: Lynn and I teased Bookends readers about this fascinating book in an earlier post after we both read it on the plane home from the ALA Annual Conference. This week, we’re participating in the blog tour for Spooked! How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America (2018). For those new to Bookends blog, welcome! Here on the Booklist Magazine blog, The Booklist Reader, Lynn and I usually spotlight a book and provide our individual thoughts. That’s what we’re doing today with Spooked. The publisher, Calkins Creek, is giving out one free copy to a reader at each blog stop, so read on to find out how to get a chance to win!

On Mischief Night (Hallowe’en Eve) in 1938, Orson Welles famously scared the nation with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Author Gail Jarrow, who has written about the Bubonic Plague and other historical diseases for middle-grade and YA audiences, now turns her attention to an event that mirrors a current societal disease: believing everything you hear or that the media reports.

Welles’ weekly show, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, presented radio dramas. Even so, Welles’ colleagues worried that a script about an alien invasion was so unbelievable that it wouldn’t be entertaining, let alone that anyone would believe an invasion was actually happening! Welles delivered the story in the style of breaking news bulletins, which became increasingly frequent and urgent as the hour progressed. Despite previous announcements and regular breaks in the show explaining that it was a dramatization of Welles’ book, the show caused a panic for many of those tuned into their radios that Sunday night.

Spooked follows what happened on the night of the broadcast. Readers will learn about those who produced and wrote the show, as well as their novel methods of sound production. Of course, Welles and his team never could have guessed at the impact the show would have. Jarrow writes of its fallout in exciting detail and manages to relate it to current issues with news reporting and recent challenges to the freedom of the press. This is a relevant, riveting story of an 80-year-old event.

Lynn: This book is absolutely fascinating. I loved the story of the broadcast’s genesis and the details of its production, but my favorite sections concern the listeners: what they heard, what they misunderstood, and how they reacted. Jarrow even provides a smattering of the indignant letters people wrote to the FCC after the show. As entertaining as the incident is to read about, its startling connection to the current debate about news, propaganda, and the inability of so many to differentiate between the two make this book important for young people and a treasure for the classroom.

The national debate that followed the Mercury Theatre broadcast included calls for stricter regulation and censorship, as well as widespread concern about a gullible public. Use Spooked to spark a classroom debate about any number of timely issues: censorship, artistic expression, the legislation of public media, the freedom of the press and their responsibility to the public, the importance of verifying sources, bias, personal responsibility, and freedom of speech. Jarrow’s outstanding back matter contains a wealth of suggested online sources about related topics, an extensive print bibliography, and detailed source notes.

In her author’s note, Jarrow asks readers to listen to the broadcast, then ask themselves how they would have responded to it. Would you have panicked or simply enjoyed it as a Halloween story? You can’t ask for a better writing prompt than that! Here’s another: ask students to relate a time when they or someone they know had been fooled by something they heard or saw on the news.

I’ll end with a personal connection to this event, a story I loved to hear my dad tell. He was a college student in 1938, and he and his roommates were all avid science fiction fans and regular listeners of The Mercury Theatre. They had looked forward to the War of the Worlds broadcast all week and were happily settled in their dorm room enjoying the show when a friend burst in to tell them that the Martians had invaded and they were gathering everyone in the dining room! It took them over an hour to calm everyone down, reach their families, and sooth frazzled nerves. This, in a dorm full of engineering and science students. I used to marvel that even some analytic types could have been fooled so badly. How about you? What’s your story?


Blog Tour Details

If you are a U.S. or Canadian reader who would like to have a chance to win a free copy of Spooked, please leave a comment here with your reaction to our post or your previous experience with Gail Jarrow’s books, like The Amazing Harry KellerBubonic Plague, Fatal Fever, Lincoln’s Flying Spies, or Red Madness. We’ll be drawing one entry at random on Friday, September 21, 2018, the last day of the Spooked blog tour. Here’s a list of the rest of the stops on the tour:

Monday, 9/10: The Nonfiction Detectives

Tuesday, 9/11: The Booklist Reader / Bookends

Wednesday, 9/12: KidLit Frenzy

Thursday, 9/13: Deborah Kalb Books

Friday, 9/14: Archimedes Notebook

Monday, 9/17: Ms. Yingling Reads

Tuesday, 9/18: Middle Grade Minded

Wednesday, 9/19: Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook

Thursday, 9/20: Middle Grade Book Village (with a guest post by Gail Jarrow)

Friday, 9/21: Always in the Middle



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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