Authors & Illustrators
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.
An Interview with Gail Jarrow
Q. Why did you choose to write about the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast?
A. The broadcast and its aftermath create a fascinating true story filled with dynamic characters, powerful emotions, and unexpected twists. It’s really three stories: the original H.G. Wells novel, the radio play by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, and the reaction to the broadcast. When I did an informal survey of middle-school students, I discovered that most of them had never heard about the broadcast. It’s such an entertaining and relevant piece of history that I decided it was a story worth telling.
Q. The broadcast took place eighty years ago. What makes it relevant to today’s world?
A. In 1938, radio was still new. One reason the broadcast fooled people was because they hadn’t yet learned to think critically about what they heard over the airwaves. Today we’re all adjusting to the power and pitfalls of the Internet. What’s true? What’s a deliberate lie? What’s rumor? How can we avoid being manipulated?
In Spooked!, I share dozens of comments (pro and con) from listeners who wrote to Orson Welles, the Mercury Theatre, and the Federal Communications Commission after the broadcast. Some letters and telegrams are interesting because they reveal a mindset and vocabulary we’re not used to hearing. But others sound as if they could have been plucked from today’s social media.
Q. Many of your previous books, including Bubonic Panic, Fatal Fever, and Red Madness, are about the history of medicine. Why the change in subject matter with this one?
A. Spooked! actually has many similarities to those books. The Deadly Diseases trilogy focused on mistaken medical beliefs in the early twentieth century and the scientific research that corrected those views. As I worked on the trilogy, I was struck by how easily people fell into false ideas and held onto them despite evidence to the contrary. I wanted to explore this further by writing about a hoax from history. My science training taught me to question assumptions, to be skeptical, and to look for errors in reasoning. Spooked!shows what happens when people don’t do that.
Q. Tell us about your research process for this book. How did you gather information?
A. First, I listened to the recording of the radio broadcast—many times—and imagined what it was like to hear the words eighty years ago when everyone was nervous about a war breaking out. Next, I studied first-person accounts of that night, including memoirs, interviews, personal correspondence, and news film. I read more than two thousand letters and telegrams sent by listeners who described their reaction to the broadcast.
By the time I finished, I felt as though I had traveled back to October 1938 in a time machine. Using my research, I tried to take the reader back in time, too, to the New York City radio studio and into America’s living rooms on the night of the broadcast.
Q. Did your research reveal any surprises?
A. I had always heard that Orson Welles intended the radio program to be a hoax and that most of the country fell for it. After digging into the lives of the broadcast’s creators, I learned what their intentions truly were. I was also surprised to find that a flawed scientific study of the broadcast’s aftermath led to the decades-long myth of a mass panic. That goes to show how our understanding of the past changes when new information is uncovered.
Q. What can we expect from you next?
A. My next book, The Poison Squad, investigates the hidden dangers of food and drugs in the early 1900s. Most people never suspected that they were ingesting poisons and contaminants. How did a coalition of scientists, physicians, and concerned consumers lead the way in protecting Americans from those hazardous substances . . . then and now?