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The name “Disney” is known globally as an entertainment giant that includes animated films, TV shows, and theme parks. In fact, one cannot fully understand the growth of children’s entertainment in the 20th century without knowing more about the man who revolutionized the industry: Walt Disney. Disney was a self-made man who built his media empire from the ground up. Listen to learn about the obstacles Disney overcame to achieve his success and how he created Mickey Mouse, one of the most famous cartoon characters of all time.
"A Wrinkle in Time," a famous novel by Madeleine L’Engle, is the story of teenager Meg Murry. Meg is transported on an adventure through time and space with her younger brother and friend as they try to rescue her father. When it was originally published in 1963, no publisher knew how to promote it. What is it about “A Wrinkle in Time,” and why is it so controversial 50 years after its publication?
George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was published in 1945. Its message was explicitly political as a statement and a satire against Stalinism and the dictatorial socialism of the Soviet Union. Understanding this allegory gives deeper meaning to the talking animals who take control of their farm. Seventy years later, does this message of failed revolution resonate in a communist nation with a similar revolution and trajectory? Listen to learn how a later theatrical adaptation of the book is being understood in modern day China.
"Beowulf" is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. It tells the story of a 5th century Nordic warrior who defeats monsters and becomes a king. In 2000, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney released a celebrated new translation of the epic poem. In this interview, Heaney discusses “Beowulf” and his approach to translating this famous text. Listen to learn more about “Beowulf’s” lasting appeal, and what the old poem tells us about Nordic pagan and early Christian values.
Though Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22” was published more than a half century ago, its ideas and attitudes remain relevant today. The book’s title has even become a part of our language. The novel, which takes place on the battlefield during World War II, was inspired by Heller’s own experiences in war. He decided not to write a typical war novel, though, and early critics were surprised and even offended by the book’s tone and content. Listen to hear why “Catch 22” felt new and different at the time it was published, and learn how its ideas have continued to endure today.
“Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes, marked the first time a character’s inner life evolved from the beginning to the end of the story. Cervantes’ masterpiece is considered by many to be the first—and best—modern novel. In an era where 140 characters are the limit, it might be difficult to imagine how a 1,000-page book about a man having a midlife crisis has endured for more than 400 years. The title character’s message of optimism and authenticity resonates with readers, who root for Quixote, the imperfect, everyman hero.
In Suzanne Collins’ "The Hunger Games" Trilogy, an all powerful Capital controls and exploits the districts of Panem for resources. The inequality and concentration of power in Panem has struck a nerve for readers, reflecting on their lives and their governments. Heroine Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of resistance adopted by political parties and protest movements across the globe. Why and how does this dystopian novel reflect the real world? Listen to learn more about the link between “The Hunger Games” and our world today.
Throughout his life in South Africa, playwright Athol Fugard witnessed firsthand the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. Not only did racism fracture the country he loved so dearly, but it also created profound strain in his relationship with his father, whom he calls “a huge bigot.” Many elements of that difficult and complex relationship resonate throughout Athol’s play “‘Master Harold‘. . . and the Boys,” which became a Broadway hit at the peak of the anti-apartheid movement. Lisa Fugard, Athol’s daughter, also grew up in South Africa but left the country to pursue an acting career and later became a writer. Listen to hear about how both father and daughter explored their personal and the political struggles brought about by apartheid.
Charles Johnson’s book Middle Passage is considered a modern classic, in part because so much of the story told in the novel is seen as a reflection on the history of race and what it means to be black in America. In the book, the main character, Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man, unknowingly boards a ship that’s part of the illegal slave trade. His experience on board forces him to clarify his own racial identity. In this audio story, we hear different perspectives, including the author’s, on the story the book tells and its important and relevant themes.
Margot had planned to vacation with her rich prep school friends, but instead, she’s spending the summer working at her parents’ supermarket in the Bronx. This is where Lilliam Rivera’s novel, “The Education of Margot Sanchez,” begins. It’s a tale of a teen who’s caught between two different worlds, trying to decide who she really is. Listen to hear the author of the book describe what she loves about writing “unlikable” characters like Margot and how her own experiences shaped the story.
Angie Thomas’ novel, "The Hate U Give", tells the story of Starr, a young woman of color, who turns toward activism after witnessing the murder of her friend Khalil by a police officer when she is 16 years old. The novel is closely modeled after Thomas’ experiences as a student, and on the stories of several of the young men who have been victims of racialized police violence in recent years. In this audio story, the author talks about what inspired her to write this groundbreaking novel.
On October 30, 1938, actor and writer Orson Welles staged a radio play titled ‘War of the Worlds,’ which tells the story of a fictional alien invasion of Earth. ‘War of the Worlds’ is the most famous of all the radio plays Welles ever produced because of the frenzy it caused. Some recall the events of the broadcast as a preview to World War II and the very real fear and panic that would be tied to enemy attacks during the war. This audio story recalls the story of ‘War of the Worlds,’ focusing on the events of the broadcast.
“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.
The Little Prince is one of the most beloved books of all time. It was published in 1943 and has been translated into over 250 languages. Even today, it sells more than two million copies a year, making it one of the best selling books ever published. Although, on its surface, it appears to be a simple, illustrated children’s book, The Little Prince is actually a deeply philosophical work, full of allegory and commentary on human nature. Listen to learn more about its French author, Antoine Saint-Exupery, and the creative process that produced The Little Prince.
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.
In 'The Scarlet Letter' Nathaniel Hawthorne explores inclusion and exclusion in Puritan Boston. Hester Prynne is exposed to public humiliation and exclusion for breaking societal standards and having a child out of wedlock. Veterans experience similar exclusion and dishonor. When they are discharged with the label of "Other Than Honorable," they are marked with a figurative Scarlet Letter, ashamed and unable to gain veterans' benefits.
Typically in the National Football League it’s all about the quarterback. But that is not the case in “The Blind Side”, a book about American football and the position of offensive left tackle. The author argues that the previously underappreciated position is vital to the game today. Incorporated into the story is offensive left tackle Michael Oher, who grew up in poverty, was adopted, and then played college football. Lewis traces the evolution of this pivotal position and explains how contracts and cash have shaped football. Listen to learn more about the author, American football, and the real-life story of Michael Oher.
The Giver is a story about a world without memories. Years after the novel was published, a movie version was produced, depicting this world as a sterile, emotionless place, where order is thought to prevent conflict. Listen to hear an interview with author Lois Lowry about what sparked the idea for the book, which asks, “Would it be easier if we didn’t have memories?”
In response to the popular, yet controversial Netflix show "13 Reasons Why," one school began sharing some personal stories from students struggling with suicidal thoughts. Instead of sharing the reasons why someone might make the choice to end their life, however, they shared messages of hope and positive influences on the lives of its students. Listen to hear those stories and how they impacted the students at the school.
Slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted after the American Civil War. Although slavery was officially abolished, it was selectively enforced. In an exploration of the difficult and complicated topic, a documentary film was made called 13th, which identifies mass incarceration as an extension of slavery. Listen to hear about the director’s intended audience, why she feels people are listening more closely to difficult discussions like this, and what she hopes her documentary will achieve.
“Birthright” citizenship has been a very controversial subject in the United States for quite some time. The 14th Amendment guarantees automatic citizenship to any person born on US soil, but as the immigration debate has escalated over the past decade, there’s been a growing movement to change that provision. Listen to hear how other countries deal with birthright citizenship, and what one sociologist thinks will happen if the US removes that provision.
After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, millions of enslaved people in Confederate territory were freed. This raised the question of what was to happen to them now that they were free. In Savannah, Georgia, a group of black leaders met to discuss this very issue. This meeting led to an order to distribute land taken from the confederacy and some army mules to local blacks. But the promise was taken back. This led to the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” a phrase historically taken to symbolize the broken promises made by the U.S. government to America’s black population in the post-war years. In this story, several historians are interviewed about this famous meeting in Savannah. They detail the historical context for the meeting, the details of the conversation, the resulting field order, and the reasons behind why the order was later taken back.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, as European empires were exploring the globe in search of wealth and power, map-making was an essential skill. However, many map-makers had never seen the world and some of the early maps of the world were inaccurate. One exception was Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map. This audio story is about that remarkably accurate map, donated to the Library of Congress. Listen to hear a geographer explain the history behind the map and how a 1507 European cartographer could have produced such an accurate depiction of the world.
Government policies designed to prevent overfishing inadvertently made halibut fishing in Alaska very dangerous. Fishermen pushed back, and a new policy was put in place that has made the industry safer. It regulated competition by making the fishing more efficient. Listen to this story to understand how government mandated changes in the market structure had unintended consequences.
A new source of energy is being developed by using Michigan's industrial food waste. Using existing technology for converting manure into electricity, these anaerobic digesters are doing their work on pudding packs and canned peaches, among other delicacies. Listen to learn how they are turning waste into electricity.
In 1949, the Communist Revolution under Mao Zedong transformed China from the monarchy it had been for centuries, to a Communist nation. The “People’s Revolution” relied heavily on the passion and vigor of China’s young people, and the Chinese government looked poorly on anyone who was critical of China or the Communist Party. This audio story introduces a man who was only three when Chairman Mao came to power. In his 20’s he worked for the Communists in rural Mongolia. His experiences there formed the basis for his hugely successful 2004 novel “Wolf Totem”, which earned him both praise and criticism in Communist China. Listen to learn more about his experiences in Mongolia, the impact of “Wolf Totem”, and his criticisms, and hopes, for his country.
Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, is required reading in many high schools and colleges around the country. But in a new take on how to view the poem, an author, translator and Homer scholar took his father on a cruise that retraced the route of the Greek hero Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as laid out in Homer’s epic. Prior to this adventure, the son had taught The Odyssey in a course at Bard College, which his father had attended. In this audio story, and author and translator discusses a trip he made with his father, not long before the older man’s death.
The New York Botanical Garden created an exhibit to honor Emily Dickinson. She was a nineteenth-century American poet who wrote unique verses, often about the nature of life and death. The new exhibit celebrates her hobbies, family, and experiences from a surprising perspective. Listen to learn what Dickinson was actually known for in her lifetime (hint: it’s not poetry!).
Two famous authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R..R Tolkien, had a deep friendship. C.S. Lewis helped J.R.R. Tolkien get published, but Tolkien admitted he didn’t even like Lewis’ work, especially "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," which he thought was terrible. Both were Christians and heavily influenced by Christian ideology. Tolkien says "Lord of the Rings" was a deeply Catholic book, while Lewis was more influenced by writers of the Renaissance who were fascinated by Pagan mythology. Listen as this radio story explores the two authors' friendship and motivations.
In this episode of the vocabulary-building podcast Good Words, listeners dig deeply into the meaning of the word magnanimous by hearing about how someone donated a kidney to his best friend. Listen to hear more about a quintessential example of a magnanimous act.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) was an American anthropologist and writer who focused her research and writing on African American folklore and racial struggles in the American South. In the mid-1930s, Hurston was hired by the Works Progress Administration, an arm of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed at creating jobs, to write a travel guide for Florida. In this story, a present-day writer details what she observed and learned as she made her way through Florida with Hurston’s work as her guide. Listen to learn more about Hurston’s experience working for the WPA and how specific areas in Florida have or have not changed over the past 70 years.
In the 1970s, a communist regime called the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country. The Khmer Rouge rounded people up, forced them to work in labor camps, tortured them, and executed many of them, all to supposedly create a better society. One of the survivors of the Cambodian genocide wrote a book about her experiences, called “First They Killed My Father.” Well-known actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie recently made this memoir into a film. Listen to learn about the survivor’s story and find out how Jolie translated it to film.
In 2016, a police officer shot and killed an African American man named Philando Castile at a traffic stop. Castile’s girlfriend published videos of the incident online, and it received national attention. Castile was a beloved school cafeteria worker who made a positive impact on the students he encountered. In honor of her son’s memory, Castile’s mother created the Philando Castile Relief Foundation. Listen to hear about how he connected with students and find out how the foundation is working to carry on Castile’s legacy of generosity toward the students he served.
Phillis Wheatley was the first black poet in the United States. Born in Senegal, Wheatley was taken to Boston, Massachusetts, as a slave. Since she was too weak for manual labor, Wheatley was taught to read and write instead. She published her first poem in 1767. A two-page letter by Wheatley, previously unpublished, was recently auctioned. Listen to learn more about Phillis Wheatley, the contents of this letter, and why it is so significant to scholars, historians, and collectors.
Richard Nixon is the only American president to resign from office before his term was completed. Nixon’s name has long been synonymous with abuse of power and presidential scandal. Watergate, the scandal which defined and ultimately ended the Nixon presidency, is also synonymous with corruption. Until 2007, the Nixon library was the only place in America where an alternative narrative about the scandal could be heard. Listen to hear how this narrative changed when ownership of the Nixon Presidential Library changed hands.
People rely on batteries to power our technology: laptops and phones run on rechargeable batteries. These can leak and are full of chemicals. But over time, these batteries stop re-charging, forcing us to purchase a new battery. But what if our batteries never died? A new battery was recently created that can last over 100 times longer than typical batteries. Listen to this story to figure out how one scientist has engineered a new battery.
One teen from a small Massachusetts town was a victim of bullying in high school. To fight back against bullying, she did something unexpected: she took to social media. In this audio story, she explains her experience with bullying, her anti-bullying efforts, and discusses the importance of empathy, even for the bully. Listen to learn more about the role social media plays in bullying and the compassion necessary to put a stop to bullying.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby" James “Jimmy” Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby. Gatsby creates a false identity for himself to enter the world of wealth and power that his beloved, Daisy Buchanan, lives in. The novel explores this world of excess and what it takes for Gatsby to truly enter it. This premise of false identity has moved from fiction to reality. Listen to learn about a real life Gatsby who called himself “Clark Rockefeller.”
On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced acts of terrorism. But the response on that day included countless acts of heroism, big and small. Friends, co-workers, emergency workers and strangers did what they could to protect the people around them. Michael Benfante is one of these heroes, though he is uncomfortable with being called a hero. Benfante worked in the second tower of the World Trade Center and as he fled down the staircase he encountered a woman in a wheelchair who needed his help. Listen to learn more about his decision to help carry her out of the doomed building and the lasting impact it’s had on his life.
The famous ring featured in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” may have actually existed. This story reveals how Tolkien encountered a supposedly cursed ring from the Roman period shortly before he wrote “The Hobbit.” Many believe that this ring and the details surrounding it might have inspired Tolkien’s novels. Today, the ring is on public display at an English estate. Listen to learn more about the fascinating connections between history, archaeology and J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy series.