Sometimes when we spend so much thought and energy focused on all things fiction in middle grade literature, it can be easy to overlook the importance of quality non-fiction. Speaking as a teacher of middle grade readers, I can promise you the interest in non-fiction is healthy and thriving -- especially in reluctant readers.
I recently had the opportunity to read SPOOKED!, a new piece of engaging non-fiction by Gail Jarrow. SPOOKED! tells a well-researched story of the infamous “War of the Worlds” 1938 radio broadcast. I first became aware of this event when I was a young middle grader myself, watching the TV movie “The Night that Panicked America.” I was fascinated by the misunderstanding of how the whole event snowballed out of control back then, and was eager to read more about it.
SPOOKED! didn’t disappoint. It thoroughly recounts the event, starting with how the theatrical roots of Orson Wells led him to radio and the adaptation of using the H.G. Wells novel as a radio play, set in what was then the modern day United States. Instead of just writing the book as a Wells biography, Gail Jarrow tells the reader about the other people involved as well, from the other performers and writers all the way to the people who worked in special effects and people in the general public who were caught up in the panic. The numerous references to the story being told and the way so much of the population reacted to it will probably bring a lot of young readers to the original novel.
SPOOKED! doesn’t stop with the resolution of the radio play itself, but continues on to chronicle the aftermath. It provides dozens of anecdotal moments giving examples of how individuals were affected by the broadcast, and how the widespread reactions went as far as letters to newspapers and possible government intervention. The book ultimately stands as a strong example of why it’s so important to pay close attention to the details of the media, and how so many people can be taken in by false statements when they let that attention slip.
Gail Jarrow is the author of many popular nonfiction books, including Red Madness, Fatal Fever, and Bubonic Panic. Her books have received numerous starred reviews, awards, and distinctions, including Best Book awards from the New York Public Library, School Library Journal, the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Kirkus Reviews, and the National Science Teachers Association.