TEACHERS: Try our Lessons free — get a 30 Day Premium Trial
“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.
"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 Capitol 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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
In Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella "Heart of Darkness," an English sailor tells the tale of his voyage on the Congo River in Africa. The novel, which is set during the height of British imperialism in Africa, contrasts “civilized” Europeans with “uncivilized” African natives and describes the brutal treatment of Africans by European traders. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" provides a contrast to Conrad’s story, describing the British colonization of Africa from the perspective of Africans. In this audio story, Achebe talks about how his understanding of "Heart of Darkness" changed over time.
In this interview, actor Henry Winkler discusses his own learning difference and that of Hank Zipzer, the main character in Winkler’s children’s book series. Hank, who is based on Winkler’s own experience as a child, struggles with learning to read, but works hard to succeed despite his challenges. Listen to learn more about Winkler’s story, how he persevered through his dyslexia and achieved success, and what he considers his greatest accomplishment.
Race in America is a complex and difficult topic. This is especially the case for children adopted into families of a different race than themselves. Listen to hear how one girl tries to navigate the waters of race after being adopted into a white family.
The story of “Romeo and Juliet” is a fictional Shakespearean tragedy about star-crossed lovers. In Afghanistan, falling in love with someone from a different background can get you killed, especially if you are a woman. A true story of love between a man and woman from different ethnic sects of Islam was reported in The New York Times. Journalists have a code that requires them to remain impartial in their work, but one reporter got involved and helped these people during their crisis. Listen to how he helped this couple avoid danger, similar to the friar and nurse who helped Romeo and Juliet.
Every year, thousands of children in America are removed from their parents and placed in foster care because they are unsafe or neglected. Foster care is meant to be temporary, but sometimes kids can spend their entire childhoods in foster care and never be adopted or returned to their biological family. As well-intentioned as the system is, it often fails to deliver on its promises due to understaffing, overwhelming caseloads, and other issues. In this story, we hear from a young man who spent his childhood in foster care, and at the age of 21 is now leaving the system. Listen to hear how he faced this difficult challenge and why he thinks the foster care system failed him.
Amy Tan has written a new novel, "The Valley of Amazement" which is set in both San Francisco and Shanghai in the early 1900s. This story explores Chinese cultural practices, American and Chinese identities, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. Tan’s book highlights our stereotypes and forces readers to question their assumptions about certain societal roles. While she wrote, Tan, too, questioned her own assumptions about her ancestry, and gained a more nuanced understanding of her family’s past. Listen to hear more about a novel’s potential to impact both readers and author alike.
From "Shiloh" to "Lassie" and "Old Yeller," young adult literature is full of stories about friendship between people and dogs. People love animals but what do animals feel? There is a debate in the scientific community and in popular culture about what emotions animals are capable of and how they display these emotions. Does recognizing that animals can feel take away from human emotion? Or does it help us recognize where these traits came from? This story discusses recent research on the emotions of animals. Listen to learn more about what researchers discovered, and the controversy surrounding the emotional lives of animals.
Literature has the power to influence our lives. In this audio story, several fifth graders at Anne Frank Elementary School in Philadelphia reflect on the lessons they have learned from reading Anne Frank’s innermost thoughts in "The Diary of a Young Girl." Their fifth grade class is diverse, with kids from many countries and cultures all over the world. You will hear many students explain how they can relate in different ways to the sentiments Anne Frank expresses in her diary. Listen to learn more about the ways these students think Anne Frank’s diary brings us together, gives us hope, and inspires us to never repeat the horrors of the past.
Anne Frank’s diary of her family’s life in hiding from the Nazis is one of the most famous accounts of World War II. Less known is how her father, Otto Frank made many attempts to get his wife and two daughters, Margot and Anne, out of Nazi Germany to safety. In 2005, several letters and documents written by Otto Frank were discovered. Despite the support of several wealthy and powerful friends in the United States, he was unable to acquire the necessary visas. The U.S. was making it more and more difficult for immigrants to enter the country and, after Germany declared war on the U.S., Cuba rescinded the visas it had originally offered. Listen to learn more about the powers that kept the Frank family in Europe, where they were eventually discovered, arrested and almost all murdered by the Nazis.
Jacqueline Woodson’s free verse memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming," won the National Book Award in 2014. Woodson has published 30 books and won three Newbery Honor Medals. This book explores different perspectives in a desegregating America. In this interview, Woodson talks about her experience of segregation of race and religion, and how her experiences are often similar to students who she talks with today. She talks about the need for more diverse literature in schools, along with her book being appropriate for a wider audience-- not only brown students. Listen to hear her discuss how she integrates her personal experiences into her writing.
Many people know about Helen Keller, a deaf and blind woman whose struggle to communicate was immortalized in her 1957 autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” Keller’s book was made into several movies and adapted for the stage, making Keller a well-known figure. But few people have heard of Laura Bridgman, a woman who learned to overcome the loss of four of her five senses fifty years earlier than Keller. Listen to hear more about how one young woman, with disabilities similar to Keller’s, overcame great adversity.
The classic novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is essentially a story about belonging. In this audio story, a British author has written a contemporary novel that borrows elements from Emily Brontë’s life and her novel to tell a modern story about belonging. The author of The Lost Child was born in St. Kitts in the West Indies and moved to Britain when he was just four months old. Listen to learn more about how one author’s search for identity and belonging influenced his craft.
More people have been deported from the U.S. in the last decade, starting under the Obama administration, than at any other point in history. Deportations occur for any number of reasons–criminal activity, improper paperwork, and so on–but regardless of the reason, they always have an impact far beyond the person who is removed from the country. Listen to hear how having her father deported has affected one teen and her family.