Addicted to Audiobooks

Addicted to Audiobooks

by Susie Wilde

*This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

I have ADD and when I get overwhelmed, my brain short-circuits. Several years ago, however, I began to notice that if I tuned into an audiobook when I was scattered, I was able to focus and organize. I’d heard that typing frees your left brain so your creative mind can run free and, for me, it seemed that an engaging listen reined in my imagination and gave my print-weary eyes a respite.

My daughter teaches ESL. This year, after she found one of her ESL students struggling to keep up with a book the class was reading, she gave him an audio version. Everything changed: At the end of the school year, he was thrilled when she loaded new audiobooks on a mobile device for his “summer reading.” I learned from her how listening often is an easier path than visual reading.

I thought again of my reaction to audiobooks and imagined these are only two of many ways that audiobooks can aid and transform struggling students. Below find some thoughts about what encourages listening as well as some recommendations sure to inspire kids who don’t know they like to read.

Engaging Audiobooks Transport You

I am engaged when a story and narrator hook me from the beginning and hold me until the end. A captivating narration has ideas, rhythms and rhymes that work so well, I am more present in the story than my everyday world.

One of my richest listens this year was Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy , read by Jayne Entwistle (Listening Library, 5 CDs, 6.5 hours, ages 9 and up). Foxlee tracks both the backstory of an enchanted boy and the present-day tale of Ophelia who accompanies her father to curate a museum show and reluctantly joins the enchanted boy in saving the world. Entwistle weaves the two interconnected plots masterfully. When she tells the Boy’s tale, her crisp narration picks up a dreamier “once-upon-a-time” quality. Her approach is gripping as she accents the emotional ups and downs of Ophelia’s adventures in a fantastical museum soon after her mother’s death. As Ophelia begins to understand the enchantments, Entwistle conveys Ophelia’s courage and pluck as well as her continued longing for her fanciful mother.

Multiple Voice Narration Magnetizes

Sometimes multiple voice recordings can merely add to a book’s meaning. At other times, they are almost crucial to the success of the adaptation to audio. These voices can differentiate characters and define book segments. Their voices can also form contrasts or show similarity of characters’ feelings.

Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (Listening Library, 7 CDs, 9 hours, ages 13 and up) is told from the two title characters’ alternating viewpoints. Wisely the audio producers chose two talented narrators who eloquently express the inner feelings and outer actions of Eleanor and Park. Rebecca Lowman reveals Eleanor’s prickly nature voicing sarcasm that clarifies her biting wit and defiant responses. Closer listening reveals softer, more tender feelings that lie beneath as Lowman registers the chilling fears that result from Eleanor’s mercurial stepfather’s behavior. Sunil Malhotra’s neutral conversational tones give a sense of Park’s stability and the comfort he provides Eleanor. Malhotra’s narration is also layered, showing Park’s internal self — his fluctuations from self-deprecation at his awkwardness to the heightened emotions of his extreme feelings for Eleanor. The two voices contrast and complement, becoming a magnificent duet that builds to an emotional crescendo.

Engrossing Nonfiction Adds Meaning

More and more audiobooks reflect the growing body of nonfiction children’s books. Nonfiction’s detached perspective works best when the narrator can immerse the listeners in a time and place and provide a blend of drama and authority.

I survived a day of spring cleaning only because of Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights (Listening Library, 3 CDs, 4 hours), read by Dominic Hoffman. It helps that Sheinkin begins with the powerful, poignant story of a little-known historical occurrence: the tragic event of July 17, 1944 in which a massive explosion killed more than 320 soldiers, 202 of whom were black, at a segregated Navy base. The accident, largely caused by lack of training and unsafe conditions, caused a protest that ended in a highly prejudicial mutiny trial and the unfair sentencing of 50 men.

Still, Hoffman makes his own contribution, varying his tones to match the rhythms of Sheinkin’s telling. He relates facts in a strong, clear authoritarian tone, but imbues the many embedded quotations with the emotions they require. Hoffman also brings key characters to life: his reading becomes more dramatic when Sheinkin speaks of dynamic Joe Small, a natural leader who united fellow soldiers in respectfully denying orders, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who later became involved with the case.

Characterizations That Captivate

Sometimes characters are so real, so distinctive, they beg for a convincing portrayal– one that conveys the emotions and the unique qualities of the personalities.

Roxanne Hernandez narrates Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Brilliance, 6 CDs, 6 hours, 50 minutes, ages 13 and up). After a move motivated by her mother’s moods that swing from frustration to rage, tenth grader Piddy Sanchez enters a new school and on day one learns from gossipy Darlene that Yaqui Delgado has it in for her. From the opening scenes, Hernandez uses a broad range of voices to describe the personalities that indicate the treacherous territory Piddy will tread. Darlene is nervous and annoying while Yaqui’s posse demonstrates menace.

Against these stress-inducing personalities, Hernandez establishes Piddy as a reliable narrator who operates with aplomb. She uses perfect comedic timing as Piddy gives a view of herself in “the worst real estate in the cafeteria” and it’s clear immediately that she is a young independent woman with a strong spirit who is as adept at surfing her mother’s sudden mood shifts as negotiating racial divides. Hernandez gives a nuanced picture so listeners understand that Piddy is slightly unsettled and confused by Yaqui’s menace.

These initial scenes are key as Hernandez lays important groundwork. Her inter-weaving of Spanish and her verve as she describes settings and situations allows listeners to enter Piddy’s world. More importantly, listeners are quickly won over by Piddy and can later internalize the scary situations and identify as she moves from nervousness, to worry, to fear, to terror.

Tension Tantalizes

Perhaps the most significant key to engaging listeners is tension. Plot, genre, character interactions, and narration can operate singly, or combine for maximum impact.

It’s a stunning feat when all elements are present in one audiobook as in Miranda Raison’s rendition of Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase (Listening Library, approximately 10 hours, ages 12 and up), the first in Lockwood & Co. series. Those who enjoyed the action, suspense, and humor in Jonathan Stroud’s best-selling Bartimaeus trilogy will be delighted to find the same ingredients in this genre mash-up of ghost, mystery and horror story. Raison creates compelling and convincing depictions of the three complex characters who run a company that seeks malevolent ghosts in a steampunk-ish London. Raison excels in her portrayal of Lucy Carlyle, who tells the tale. Lucy is super-sensitive to spirits, a bit touchy about her failures, and gets downright biting in the face of her colleague, George’s dripping sarcasm. Lucy picks up on not just specters’ presences, but also the complicated personality of her boss, Anthony Lockwood, who is sometimes caring and at other times introspective and confusing. Stroud laces his story with quick-witted dialogue and changeable moods, and Raison matches his pace, transitioning quickly from one varying characterization and tone to the next, going a step further by inserting a charge to the dialogues. Hunting ghosts certainly has an inherent intensity, but Stroud adds a slew of non-stop, heart-pounding adventures and Raison’s indefatigable pacing turns up the heat.

Today, reading can take many forms, each providing different possibilities. Online reading has become familiar to children. E-books are mobile and compact, and nonfiction works are often produced in enhanced versions. The many doors audiobooks open are as diverse as the growing number of titles.

More Audiobooks for Middle Schoolers

Kwame Alexander, [amazon text=The Crossover&asin=B00L5R95F8, read by Corey Allen (Recorded Books, 2 CDs, 2.5 hours)

James Klise, The Art of Secrets , read by Dan Bittner, Denise Ashlynd, Josh Rivedal, Heather Corrigan, Anne Twomey (Highbridge, 5 CDs, 6 hours)

Kenneth Oppel, The Boundless , performed by Nick Podehl (Brilliance, 7 CDs, approx. 8 hours)

Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone , read by Suzy Jackson (Recorded Books, approx. 6 hours)

Sheila Turnage, Three Times Lucky, read by Michal Friedman (Penguin Audio, 3 CDs, approx. 8 hours)

More Audiobooks for Teens

J.C. Carleson, The Tyrant’s Daughter, read by Meera Simhan (7 CDs, 8 hours, 33 minutes)

A.S. King, Reality Boy , read by Michael Stellman (Audio Go, 7 CDs, approx. 7.5 hours)

E. Lockhart,We Were Liars, read by Ariadne Meyers (Listening Library, 5 CDs, 6 hours, 27 minutes)

Leila Sales,This Song Will Save Your Life, read by Rebecca Lowman (Listening Library, 8 hours, 14 minutes)

Hollis Seamon,Somebody Up There Hates You, read by Noah Galvin (6 hours)