published in the News and Observer, March 25, 2018
I love audio books. And for both children and adult books, I look to the same characteristics.
I seek excellent narrators who add dimension to characters, strengthen evocative scenes, dramatize feelings and relationships, build tension and suspense, and invite listeners to join in the storytelling experience.
Here are some of the best audio books for kids of all ages.
Audios of Picture Books for ages 3-6
“The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra”
By Marc Tyler Nobleman, read by Luis Moreno (Recorded Books)
Luis Moreno’s lively narration animates the dynamic dialogue of the three goats and the mythic beast, the chupacabra. The Chupacabra gobbles two of his less favorite foods, a candelabra and cucaracha, and the goats fear they’ll be next. Moreno’s reading accents the wordplay, interwoven Spanish, and the story’s surprises.
“The Teeny Tiny Halloween”
By Lauren Wohl, read by Elisabeth Rogers (Live Oak Media)
This well-known classic gains narrative power when Elisabeth Rogers accents the “teeny tiny” refrain. She uses the perfect tiny voice for the brave teeny woman who faces her fears. Both combine for a scary-safe read. Sound effects further enliven the tale.
Audios of Picture Books for ages 5-8
“Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History”
By Vashti Harrison, read by Robin Miles and Bahni Turpin (Blackstone)
The short biographies of 40 black women have a wide representation from 18th century poet Phillis Wheatley to gymnast Dominque Dawes who won five gold medals in the 1992 Olympics. Noted narrators Robin Miles and Bahni Turpin read the biographies with energetic enthusiasm that will please listeners. The biographies are short and compelling enough for a 6-year-old, but have enough detail to please a 9-year-old. The audio comes with a CD of PDF images illustrated by the author.
By Matt de la Pena, read by the author (Listening Library)
Matt de la Pena’s soft, rhythmic reading matches his lyrical view of love. Love is there in the “creases in your grandfather’s face,” “made up stories of your uncles playing horseshoes,” and there’s the kind of love that comforts “it’s okay, it’s okay” in moments that are uncertain and frightening. De la Pena’s view of love is personal, yet universal, powerful, not sentimental. Loren Long’s illustrations add another emotional layer.
By Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, read by Dion Graham (Live Oak Media)
A single trombone precedes Dion Graham’s narration of the autobiography of Trombone Shorty Andrews, a New Orleans native and Grammy Award-nominated musician. Graham’s dynamic reading blends with Andrews’ music and words and the audio’s soundscapes to dramatize everything from Shorty’s weak initial efforts, to roaring crowds.
Audios of Picture Book for ages 8-11
“Freedom Over Me”
By Ashley Bryan, narrated by Patricia R. Floyd, Kevin R. Free, Jenny Sterlin (Recorded Books)
The three narrators accent the contrast between owner Mary Fairchilds and 11 slaves. Mary plans to sell them off, and her voice is cold and hard. The narratives of the enslaved men and women are impassioned, their dreams for the future hopeful and lyrically expressed. The audio contains an author’s note to better explain the story and his writing of it.
“I’m New Here”
By Anne Sibley O’Brien, read by Frankie Corzo, Ruth Livier, Ramon de Campto, ArianaDelawari; Author’s note read by author (Live Oak Media)
A combined cast portrays immigrant students from Guatemala, Korea and Somalia as they enter an American classroom. Accents, images, experiences and sentiment represent a rainbow of diversity as the new students’ feelings change from confusion and loneliness to familiarity and friendship. This thoughtful audio is best shared with adults who can lead conversations. The author’s note can aid those discussions.
“A Poem for Peter”
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, read by Channie Waites (Recorded Books)
Channie Waites is quick to establish the rhythms and emotions in this tribute to Ezra Jack Keats, his character Peter, “the brown-sugar boy,” and his visions of equality. Waites twines all three in a powerful verse portrait. Waites emphasizes harsh truths about prejudice and struggles, balancing them with sensitivity to the imaginative lyricism.
Audios of Early Novels for ages 7-10
“Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package”
By Kate DiCamillo, read by Lorna Raver (Listening Library)
Lorna Raver’s precise elegant reading conveys the word play of the author and the brittleness of heroine, Eugenia Lincoln, who’s angered by the arrival of an unexpected package. Raver animates the entire cast of characters and moves easily between these portrayals. Especially stellar is Eugenia’s grudging acceptance of the gift of an accordion.
“The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate”
By Shannon and Dean Hale, read by Julia Whalen (Listening Library)
Julia Whalen narrates the third adventure of Princess Magnolia, who becomes the Princess in Black to save her kingdom from goat-gobbling monsters. Whalen expresses the blend of once-upon-a-time and humor as Magnolia hides her dual identity while visiting her friend, Princess Sneezewort.
Audios for Middle Grade Listeners
“The Lost Kingdom of Barmarre”
By Gail Carson Levine, read by January LaVoy (HarperAudio)
January LaVoy’s narrative, rich in tone and textures, welcomes listeners to the fairy tale world of Peregrine. Peregrine is taken in infancy from gentle parents by a fierce ruler from a neighboring country. LaVoy expresses Peregrine’s confidence and pride growing up, then shock at discovering her true parentage. LaVoy changes easily from portraying a large cast of characters including a fairy, elders and youth, male and female.
By Jason Reynolds, read by Heather Alicia Finn (Simon and Schuster Audio)
Heather Alicia Finn represents the overwhelm and worry of the heroine, Patina. Patty has suffered much in her young life. Her beloved father dead, she must live with her aunt and uncle after her diabetic mother’s amputation and she feels responsible for her younger sister. Finn captures Patty’s sassiness in the comfort of her running team, insecurity when she doesn’t perform perfectly, disdain for snooty girls at the rich girl academy she attends and the tenderness she shows her sister. Finn skillfully renders the minor characters in the story and its rhythms and pacing.
“The War I Finally Won”
By Kim Brubaker Bradley, read by Jayne Entwistle (Listening Library)
Jayne Entwistle read Bradley’s “The War That Saved My Life” and her narration of the sequel cements the books’ connection. Entwistle recognizes all the characters’ complexities, particularly the heroine, Ada. Entwistle gives a layered portrayal of Ada’s determination to recover from her mother’s cruelty and the struggles World War II imposes. The poignancy of the story paired with Entwistle’s reading make this a fabulous family listen.
Audios for YA Listeners
By Ibi Zoboi read by Robin Miles (Listening Library)
Robin Miles moves quickly between accents as she tells the story of Fabilola Toussaint, a teen born in the United States, but raised in Haiti. En route to America, Fab is separated from her mother by ICE officials and comes to live in Detroit with her aunt and cousins amidst the turmoil of drugs, gangs and violence. Mysticism and gritty reality offset each other as Miles realizes the author’s fine writing and the sensitive nature of the story.
“Blood for Blood”
By Ryan Graudin, read by Christa Lewis (Hatchette Audio)
Christa Lewis, who narrated Graudin’s first World War II alt-history, “Wolf By Wolf,” reads the companion. Immediately, Lewis creates tension anew as shape-shifting Yael flees Nazi pursuers through dangerous Soviet territories and finally takes a stand into the heart of the Nazi stronghold. Lewis deepens the characterizations and relationships while mirroring the plot’s breakneck speed.
“City of Saints and Thieves”
By Natalie C. Anderson, read by Pascale Armand (Listening Library)
Natalie Anderson’s convincing portrait captures Tina’s many contrasts. Tina is as tough as any Kenyan street gang member, but still carries tenderness resulting from her years as a Congolese refugee. Tension builds with Tina’s scheming and sleuthing and growing confusion about personal and political situations surround her. Anderson’s pacing, dramatizations and emotional tenors never fail.
By Bill Konigsberg, read by Dan Bittner (Scholastic Audio)
Dan Bittner’s narration develops the unique personality of Ben, an intriguing secondary character in “Openly Straight.” Bittner quickly reveals the intelligence and introspection of this quiet 17-year-old whose sensitivity contrasts with callousness around him. Bittner places Ben’s conflict about gayness in the context of his complex search for identity.
“Long Way Down”
By Jason Reynolds, read by the author (Simon and Schuster)
This book is made to be read aloud, its potency increases when read by the author. Reynolds’ lyricism buoys listeners through intense linked free-verse poems. They recount Will’s decision to avenge his brother’s death and his entrance into an elevator haunted by those killed by violence. Reynolds’ dramatic pauses are needed for the short poems that are packed with sensory details and images and feelings.