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Roald Dahl’s life was plagued by tragedy, and yet he wrote some of the most famous children’s books of our time, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. This public radio story takes you into Dahl’s life and explores what motivated his writing. Listen to learn more about his relationship with his wife and children, his special writing hut, and the legacy he left behind.
Franz Kafka worked at an insurance company and wrote in his spare time. He asked that all his personal papers, including literary manuscripts be burned when he died. After Kafka’s death, his friend and literary executor Max Brod ignored Kafka’s wishes and published many of his manuscripts. The Trial, a novel about law, justice and the arrest and prosecution of a man for an unknown crime, was one of these manuscripts. Other people face similar decisions around respecting the wishes of an artist or writer by destroying their work. Listen to a conversation with an ethicist as he discusses the implications of this debate through a modern day example.
Hawaiian is a Polynesian language that has been spoken for centuries in the volcanic islands of Hawaii. The indigenous Pacific Islanders living in Hawaii were prevented from speaking Hawaiian after the U.S. takeover in the late 1800s. By the 1970s, only about 50 people under the age of 18 still knew how to speak the native Hawaiian language. In recent years, Hawaiian people concerned about losing their language and its cultural value have led a movement to revive the language among younger generations. Listen to this story to hear about a Hawaiian language immersion school where parents are learning along with their children in the hope of reconnecting with and preserving an important part of their culture.
Most people can think of ways to splurge, or spend money on something expensive and pleasurable just for fun. Splurging, though, often takes planning and saving money over time. Listen to hear people describe what they would like to splurge on and why, and learn how a 12-year-old accomplished the ambitious goal of buying himself a car.
Scary, shape-changing creatures are universal elements in folktales around the world. In this audio story, author Tracey Baptiste meets with a group of students to discuss her book, The Jumbies, a story based on frightening creatures who populate the folktales of Trinidad and other places in the Caribbean region. In the story, Corinne, the main character, confronts the jumbies with the help of friends she meets in the forest, including a witch. Listen to hear students discuss why they like scary stories and to hear the author describe how she drew on folklore from her childhood to invent an original tale.
The Tuck family gains immortality after drinking from a magical spring, but living forever brings sadness as well as joy. That is the premise of Natalie Babbitt’s classic novel Tuck Everlasting, about a 10-year-old girl who learns the Tuck family’s secret and wrestles with the decision about whether to drink from the fountain herself. Listen to hear fifth graders share their ideas about the book’s central themes, including death, eternal life, and living each moment to the fullest.
Playwright Arthur Miller wrote plays that spoke to the common man. From his commentary on the American dream in Death of a Salesman to McCarthyism in The Crucible, Miller wrote hard-hitting personal dramas that also resonated with a wide spectrum of American people, especially the working class. Listen to learn more about Miller’s roots, his writing process, and how his personal background—particularly his house and writing space—compare to backgrounds shared by his characters.
In 1967 Nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote "One Hundred Years of Solitude". The novel takes place in the fictional and fantastical town of Macondo. Macondo serves as a setting as well as a metaphor for Colombia itself. The novel’s magical realism inspired a genre of writing and in an ironic twist of fate inspired the naming of the oil field that was blown out by the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2011. Listen to learn more about the literary and thematic connections between the two.
Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet has been performed many hundreds of times since its original performance in 1609. In honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the touring company from the Globe Theater in England planned an ambitious tour, performing one of the bard’s greatest tragedies in every nation on Earth over two years. They chose the play Hamlet and performed it in 197 countries. Listen to learn how they planned to accomplish this monumental task, and what the world can learn from Hamlet.
During her short life, Shirley Jackson was a famous author. Jackson wrote several novels, including two best-sellers, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award. Her most famous book was her 1959 The Haunting Of Hill House, but her short story “The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker magazine, also made an impact on readers. Jackson’s novels incorporate both terror and humor as they relate to the human condition. Listen to an interview with Jackson’s biographer to learn more about Jackson’s life, the society in which she lived, and how her own background impacted her writing.
This story takes a deep look at the word “ostentatious” with a focus on nuances of meaning that distinguish words that are close synonyms. While some showiness can be harmless, fun, or even desirable, “ostentatious” has a negative connotation and implies over-the-top behavior intended to impress. Listen to kids tell stories from their own experience of showy behavior and hear how synonyms differ slightly in meaning.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has only been cancelled twice, first for three years during World War II and then in the year 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped the spellers from studying, practicing, and learning new words. Two students who were supposed to compete in the 2020 spelling bee have some techniques and rituals they use to help them along. Listen to hear more about their quirky rituals and how they use strategies like identifying root words to help them spell unfamiliar words.
American author John Steinbeck published his epic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939, but his journey writing the novel was much longer. The novel tells the story of Oklahoma migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl for work in California’s migrant worker camps. Steinbeck did months of research and spent much of mid-to-late 1930s with migrants in camps for a series of articles in the San Francisco News. As a result, “The Grapes of Wrath” spoke to the working class during the Depression era, and continues to resonate today with its themes of struggle, redemption, greed, and goodness. Listen to learn more about this great American novel.
The novel Esperanza Rising tells the “riches to rags” story of a girl who lived comfortably in Mexico in the 1930s until her family’s situation changed. She and her family had to move to California, where they worked in farm labor camps and lived in poverty as migrant workers during the Great Depression. Listen to hear an excerpt and a book discussion and learn how the author’s grandmother’s experiences inspired her to write the novel.
The characters in our alphabet look the way they do and stand for their unique sounds for a reason. There are many stories behind the letters we use so often. The earliest forms of writing evolved because members of ancient civilizations needed more efficient ways to express themselves. Listen to this story to hear about the origins of individual letters, as well as learn about the connection between shape and meaning in our modern alphabet.
In February of 2018, 17 people were killed in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Though not the first mass shooting of its kind, this tragic event, some say, represents a turning point the country’s tolerance for gun violence in schools. Since Parkland, student-led protests have risen up nationwide demanding a change to gun laws in America. This NPR story, told from a student’s perspective, reflects on the impact of school shootings. In particular, it focuses on the impact shootings have on students’ lives and how they shatter the notion of school as a safe haven.
In 1989, a plane flying from Denver to Chicago malfunctioned. The pilots crash landed and were able to save many of the people on board, but tragically, more than 100 died in the fiery crash. An author recently published a book telling the stories of Flight 232’s survivors. He interviewed many of the people on the flight about their experiences during and after the catastrophe. Listen to learn how they survived and how the experience has affected the rest of their lives.
The people of Sudan, a country in northeast Africa, have faced many difficult challenges, including civil war, drought, and famine. This audio interview focuses on A Long Walk to Water, a story about two young survivors of extreme hardships in Sudan. One character, Salva, is based on an actual person who escaped from war and searched for his family. The other character, Nya, is a fictional composite of several girls from Sudan’s refugee camps. Listen to hear students discuss the book and learn how the author created a work of fiction based on a factual story.
After the owner of a tattoo shop south of Baltimore posted on Facebook that he would offer to cover up any racist or gang-affiliated tattoos for free, his post quickly went viral and attracted a lot of attention. His philosophy is that people who have made mistakes should have the opportunity for a second chance to display a change of heart. Listen to this story to find out where this idea originated and how one tattoo artist has helped people to reshape their identities.
Social media has the power to influence our personal lives as well as the world around us. In this audio story, you will hear about a group of teenage girls who took to social media to fight bullying and to effect change in their educational environments. Students explain how Instagram helped them to build confidence among their group of friends, as well as how they used Twitter to raise awareness about dress code issues at school. Listen to learn more about the positive ways in which teenage girls are using social media to build self-esteem and feel empowered.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, many families forced to flee the island were resettled in towns throughout the United States. Some of these, of course, were students in the middle of their high school careers. Listen to hear how one high school senior is dealing with the tremendous challenges and uncertainty of finishing high school while being uprooted because of a natural disaster. This audio was provided through partnership with New England Public Radio. See the original story here.
For many high school students, stress related to academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and homework affects their mental and physical health. In this audio story, psychologists discuss when stress is helpful and when it is hurtful. Some parents and their teens discuss ways they have tried to lessen school stress, allowing life to be more manageable and enjoyable. Listen to hear more about how high school students and their parents have decided to make changes to lessen stress while still aiming to be high achievers.
Sandra Cisneros writes about working class Latino life in America and has won many awards for her writing. She is best known for her book, The House on Mango Street. The themes in her writing include the meaning of home, belonging, crossing boundaries and cultural expectations of women. Her new memoir, A House of my Own, describes how her own life also reflects these themes. In this interview, she talks about being connected to Mexico and to the United States, and how she hopes to be an ambassador passing between the two cultures. Furthermore, she works to honor the women in her family while also being an independent woman and breaking some cultural traditions. Listen to hear more about how Sandra Cisneros has created a house of her own.
When the world feels like it is continuously changing, it can be important to stop and think about all of the things in life that are constant. Rebecca Stead’s book, The List of Things That Will Not Change, finds the main character, Bea, adding items to her own list of things that will not change and working to understand her emotions with the help of a therapist. Her list brings her comfort and support during her parents’ divorce, and it makes the reader stop and think about what things in their own lives will not change.
Each year, thousands of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. People with autism may learn, think, communicate, and behave in ways that are considered unorthodox, or different from what is traditionally expected. Rather than encourage autistic people to conform to non-autistic norms, it can be helpful for neurotypical people to learn about autism and how to best support, encourage, and include their autistic peers. Listen to learn more about the word unorthodox, and hear an autistic boy explain what he and other autistic people most need from others.
Who is innocent and who is guilty? While this appears to be a simple question, the history of racism in America makes the answer complex. Author Kim Johnson discusses why she chose to write a novel about race that is focused on America’s flawed criminal justice system. Listen to learn how the author’s own experiences informed the novel and how she hopes her book will inspire readers to work towards a more equitable future.
This audio story tells the timeless tale of a sad princess giant and her father, the king giant, who wants to make his daughter happy again. The king announces that he is willing to sacrifice some of his wealth to see the princess smile and laugh. A young boy hears of the king’s plea and decides to see what he can do. Listen to hear how this boy, with the help of his violin, his best friend, and some animals they meet along the way, goes beyond his comfort zone to make the princess happy.
This audio story tells the timeless tale of a wise hare in Africa who exemplifies a triumph of brains over brawn. As the tale begins, the little rabbit struggles to finish a meal before much larger bullies push her away. While she cannot match the physical strength of the elephant or the hippopotamus, she hatches a clever plan to command their respect and thereby secure her place at the grazing table. Listen to hear how the hare tricks her tormentors and demonstrates the power of mental strength in addressing everyday challenges.
The expression “being neighborly” may call to mind giving away a cup of sugar or watching over neighbors’ homes while they are out of town. Actions such as these are bound to produce good relationships between neighbors. But, what if a neighbor isn’t willing to share or help out? In this timeless tale, a woman refuses to share something special with her neighbors, but nature intercedes and changes her view. Listen to hear how nature steps in to change a tricky situation and demonstrate the value of sharing.
American novelist Toni Morrison is best known for her novels exploring the experiences of African Americans. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she said at the ceremony that she was “pleasantly haunted by ghosts.” In this interview, Morrison discussed the ghosts inhabiting her writing. The novel Beloved has a ghost as a central character in a story about two slaves who fell in love. The novel Jazz recalls Harlem in the 1920’s and explores the themes of purgatory and jazz music. Listen to this story to learn what sparked Morrison’s creativity.
George Orwell is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential authors. His most famous book, “Animal Farm,” is considered to be a commentary on the dangers of Soviet-style totalitarianism. The book follows a group of animals who overthrow their human owners and establish self-rule on the farm. Over time the hopes of a better life fade as a small group of pigs take control and establish a dictatorship over the rest of the animals on the farm. “Animal Farm” continues to resonate with those who read it. This audio story commemorates the 60th anniversary of the publication of the novel and discusses its plot, its influence, and connections to today’s world.
John Steinbeck took a 11,000-mile journey across the United States with his dog, Charley, and then wrote about it in the book, “Travels with Charley”. He wanted to answer the question: “What are Americans like today?” Recently, a journalist retraced Steinbeck’s steps from Sag Harbor, New York through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and then straight to the northernmost part of Maine. He used Steinbeck’s "Travels with Charley" as a guide, and discusses his travels and the challenges he has faced while trying to accurately follow Steinbeck’s route. He also discusses the differences and surprising similarities between Steinbeck’s trip and his own, focusing on the places he has visited, the people he has encountered, and the technology he uses along the way.
Dante Alighieri finished writing the three-part epic poem “Divine Comedy” in 1321. The poem is written in three parts: hell, purgatory, and heaven. It follows one man on his journey through all three places. This great work of Italian literature has survived the ages and remains a classic today. There have been many translations of Dante’s work. This story interviews Clive James, the most recent English translator, as he talks about this epic poem and his translated version of “Divine Comedy.”
When Gert Berliner fled Germany during the Holocaust, he had to leave his entire family behind despite being only 14-years-old at the time. Almost 80 years later, his son Uri is attempting to reconstruct his family history around that traumatic event and rediscover long lost relatives. Listen to hear how one toy monkey connected the Berliners to new relatives and helped bring a family closer in the wake of incredible trauma.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been an American classic for 75 years. This novel centers around a poor young Irish girl and her family struggling to make it in Brooklyn. It’s loosely based on the author’s experiences growing up in New York. Listen to find out what middle schoolers think of this celebrated novel and what the author changed when she turned her real life into fiction.
Alfred Tennyson, better known as Lord Tennyson, was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland for 42 years during the reign of Queen Victoria. His short lyrical poems appealed to the people of the 19th century, many of whom couldn’t read. One of this most famous poems “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a real event during the Crimean War. This charge, during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, became the most well-known action of the war thanks to Tennyson’s poem, even though the poem wasn’t entirely accurate. Listen to learn more about the Crimean War, the real charge and how Tennyson’s words brought this event to life for the British people.
The Old Truck is the tale of a hard-working truck that, after many years on the farm, comes to sit in the weeds until someone decides to bring it back to life. Two brothers worked together to write and illustrate the picture book. They created over 250 detailed handmade stamps to help bring the story to life. Listen to hear the brothers discuss their creative process, what it was like for them to work together, and how the lessons they learned as children continue to guide them.
Choices and situations are part of everyday life. They can be complex or they can seem very simple. Is it hot or cold? Sunny or rainy? Is it good or bad? Although people tend to look at choices and situations as a dichotomy--either/or--most things are not black and white. There are “gray” areas made up of degrees of choices. Listen to explore and learn more about dichotomies and which choices and situations truly fit the definition.
The annual celebration to commemorate the works of Irish author James Joyce is called Bloomsday and is celebrated on June 16th. While many readers think Joyce’s writing is difficult to understand, Frank Delaney has started a weekly podcast about Joyce and “Ulysses” to help himself and other readers decipher “Ulysses” more easily. Delaney’s podcast includes a rap about the events in “Ulysses”, and he hopes it will continue to be produced for several years to come. Listen to hear more about James Joyce and “Ulysses” as well as more about Frank Delaney’s lengthy podcast project.
Plagiarism is a vexing problem for administrators in high schools and colleges. Students caught using someone else’s words or ideas could face serious consequences including possible expulsion. But plagiarism doesn’t just happen with research papers and schoolwork. It happens in the world of crossword puzzles. In this interview with Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The New York Times, we learn more about a recent plagiarism scandal affecting crossword puzzles published in many newspapers. Was it inadvertent or intentional plagiarism, and are we likely to see more of it in the future in the crossword community?