This Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the 1938 broadcast of the Halloween episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. Aired without commercial breaks and presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, many listeners believed that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.
Meghan McCarthy's book Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast provides an excellent introduction to this event. It begins with illustrations of radios from the 1930s and an announcer proclaiming,
"Hey, kids! Did you know that in 1930s most Americans did not own TVs? But you know what they did have? The radio!"The announcer goes on to explain that radio was the primary source for both entertainment and information. Readers also learn that "because Americans believed what they hears, they were easily fooled by a radio play that sounded like an actual news bulletin."
When readers turn the page, they are transported to October 30th, 1938, where the scene is in shades of black and white. The street is nearly empty, save for a young boy and a single car. The window of a shop reads Happy Halloween, and a smiling pumpkin sits out front. On the next page a family is gathered around a radio, listening to music. The sounds emanating from the radio are illustrated in color. (This is a wonderful device for helping young readers understand that listeners had to use their imaginations to make broadcasts come alive.) Suddenly the music stops. Upon turning the page the family looks frightened as they listen to an announcer interrupt the program with a news bulletin.
The rest of the broadcast comes to life in double-page spreads in muted colors (lots of reds) as the story of The War of the Worlds unfolds in news bulletin format. Readers see a meteorite shooting through the sky, the opening of the Martian spaceship, the appearance of the aliens, the attack that follows, and finally a map of the United States and the question "Was this the end of the world?"
The illustrations return to shades of black and white as readers learn that "Radio listeners across the country were in a state of panic!" The pages that follow show the panic that followed, from highways jammed with cars, to overloaded switchboard operators, to police investigating a farm to find only an empty field.
The final double-page spread shows the actors performing the radio play. They kept right on going, unaware of what was happening outside the studio. Readers learn that the alien invasion was just a story based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. An extensive author's note at the end provides information about the broadcast and aftermath, as well as information about subsequent readings of the story. A lengthy bibliography is also included.
This is a terrific choice for a read aloud any time of the year. However, it's particularly appropriate this Halloween as we celebrate the anniversary of the original broadcast.
Book: Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
Author/Illustrator: Meghan McCarthy
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 40 pages
Source of Book: Personal copy purchased from a local independent bookstore.
Here are some additional resources you might find helpful.
- Visit the Aliens Are Coming web site to see inside the books, read a transcript of the original broadcast, visit Grover's Mill and more.
- Visit The Mercury Theatre on the Air site to hear the original War of the Worlds broadcast as well as many others.
- You can visit the official War of the Worlds web site.
- To read the original story by H.G. Wells, check out this edition of the book illustrated by Edward Gorey.
- This ReadWriteThink lesson plan on oral storytelling and dramatization focuses on The War of the Worlds broadcast.
- Here is a very cool collection of book covers of the Wells novel.