February 16, 2006


Aliens Are Coming! The True Account of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast. By Meghan McCarthy. Knopf. $16.95.

George and the Dragon. By Chris Wormell. Knopf. $16.95.

     We humans seem to want there to be monsters out there, if only so we can overcome them.  It is important, however, that the monsters not come too close, either in distance or in time.  And that was the problem with Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds: people thought the monsters were right here, right now.  Aliens Are Coming! explains how that was possible – which requires kids to take a brief history lesson.  This occurred before most people had televisions, before emergency communication was immediate, at a time of rising world tension (World War II would begin the next year) and a time when radio was a chief source of both entertainment and up-to-the-minute news.  Welles’ radio play was structured to sound like a news broadcast breaking into an entertainment show.  There was a disclaimer before it started, but people who missed that heard no more notices until the very end, when Welles announced a tie-in of the play to Halloween: the broadcast aired on October 30.  People panicked, law enforcement was mobilized, professors started looking for evidence of aliens, and cars choked highways as listeners tried to flee to somewhere – where, they did not know.  Meghan McCarthy tells the story of this unusual (to say the least) chapter in American history with great style and in an age-appropriate way for young readers: she talks about panic but shows little evidence of it, distancing the story from reality by illustrating it with art reminiscent of what the pulp magazines of the time used.  At the end, she explains more about what happened in an Author’s Note for adults – and some kids will be fascinated by that, too, since it includes (among other things) a brief discussion of how H.G. Wells and Orson Welles actually met, and what the former thought of the latter.

     The legend of St. George and the Dragon is much older than that of the supposed Martian invasion of 1938 – but notice that the title of Chris Wormell’s book is George and the Dragon, with no “St.”  Wormell, author of the strange and touching The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit, gives the dragon tale an entirely new twist.  After showing the destruction that the dragon can and does wreak on armies, castles and the countryside where he lives, Wormell states that the dragon had a very small weakness: “He was terrified of mice!”  This statement, accompanied by a two-page panoramic drawing showing one small mouse standing on his hind legs, switches the book instantaneously from drama to farce – which is where it remains.  Wormell tells of the little mouse – that would be George – who happens to move into a tiny hole by the dragon’s cave, and pays a friendly visit next door, in the process quite inadvertently rescuing a kidnapped princess.  The princess adopts him, of course, and the final scene of George as a designated castle guardian is a gem.  So, in fact, is the whole book – a fine example of the triumphant spirit of mankind.  Or mousekind.

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