Title of the Day: Aliens Are Coming
If I had any patience I'd hold off on reviewing this title until Halloween or so. As it stands, I am too much of an eager beaver this morning. So what better way to celebrate May 13th (which has nothing to recommend itself aside from a full moon tonight) than with a book o' aliens. Manifique!
Picture book non-fiction. A hard format to write in, or the hardest format to write in? Every year countless libraries get inundated with the same old same old. Your bee books. Your dinosaur books. Your fifteen different biographies of Teddy Roosevelt. So you can imagine my surprise when I picked up a book that looked... different. You don't expect something called, "Aliens Are Coming" to be factual. You especially don't expect it to tell the truth when you flip through the pages and see large multi-tentacle-laden outer space beasties terrorizing the natural landscape. But then, it helps to know your history. Seeing the 1938 radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" for what it truly was (perfect picture book fare), McCarthy gives us, thrills, chills, and some wonderful little factoids in the back of what I might well call my favorite non-fiction picture book of 2006.
It's the 1930s! Good old 1930s. Open the book and here's a cheery announcer telling kids that back in the thirties the primary source of entertainment and information was the radio. It then explains that some people "were easily fooled by a radio play that sounded like an actual news bulletin". Turn the page, and everything is black and white. We're looking at a typical American street scene. "It was October, 30, 1938, the day before Halloween". We next see a nice black and white scene of a family gathered in their living room. The noise coming out of the radio forms into colorful dancing sequences. Suddenly an announcer comes on and starts talking about a flaming meteorite that has fallen in New Jersey. As the listeners grow worried, the scene shifts to a field where a group of people stand around as a flying saucer slowly begins to open up. It's aliens! And they've come to conquer us all! They ransack the farmlands. They invade the cities. They land all over the country. "Was this the end of the world?" Certainly a lot of people listening thought so. The pictures are back to black and white and we're seeing clogged highways and jammed phone lines, and police investigating perfectly calm fields in the country. It wasn't the end of the world. It was Orson Welles and his troupe of actors at the Mercury Theatre performing a realistic version of "War of the Worlds". Interesting factual information rounds off the book with the true story and fun info about subsequent readings of the story (with similar results).
Part of the fun of this book is that there is no indication that any of this story might not be entirely on the up and up until you reach its end. Then it finishes a bit abruptly. Still, imagine introducing this book to a room full of second graders. You tell them in all seriousness (preferably around Halloween time) that this book is a true story. True true true. Then you fill their little heads with a wacked-out tale of alien invasion and widespread panic. The fact that they've been duped only makes them (like those poor 1938 American citizens) only more intrigued and want to read the book again and again later. The pictures make it ideal read-aloud material, to say nothing of the haunting scenes, colorful during the broadcast and bleak in real life. Though McCarthy works with a misleadingly simple palette, her pictures have a great deal of depth, tone, and character to them.
Actually, author/illustrator Meghan McCarthy has always struck me as being underrated. She first came to my attention when she wrote, "The Adventures of Patty and the Big Red Bus". Like a cohesive Lauren Child, McCarthy is particularly good at her atmospheric round-eyed cartoonish illustrations. She seems at her best when she's writing non-fiction too. Her factual information bringing up the book's rear is just amazing. All in all, this is one of the most amusing and wonderful titles to grace libraries and bookstores this or any year. A great idea for a book and superb follow-through. Amusing to its core.