This review was published on June 12, 2014 in the Chapel Hill Herald Sun.
“I can’t stop my children from arguing in the car,” a friend told me recently. “But when I put in an audio, it works magic.” So began my journey into exploring recent audio books that might please her children. Her daughter at 3 loves fiction and her son, at 5, is a nonfiction fan. That’s quite a lot of disparity in terms of age and interest, but made a nice spectrum for young interests. She agreed to take some audios on “test drives,” to see if they could shift her children’s moods from squabbling to shared pleasure.
Her daughters No. 1 favorite was:
Michael B. Kaplan’s Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (Live Oak Media, 1 CD, 26 minutes) read by Katherine Kellgreen with music by Chris Kubie
This, the first of four stories about the unique Betty Bunny, makes a wonderful translation with Katherine Kellgreen’s skillful performance. Betty Bunny’s definition as “a handful” is clear as Kellgreen describes her — the bratty moments, the pouty moments, the innocent, surprised moments as she discovers she adores chocolate cake. Sounds of temper tantrums and frustration compliment her portrayal. Kellgreen captures as well all the nuances of the supporting characters. Older brother Bill’s teasing is as evident as her big sister Kate’s soothing and their mother modes of sternness, frustration and comforting. Music by Chris Kubie follows the spectrum of moods and melds beautifully with sound effects to accent the strong reading. This was her daughter’s absolute favorite. That was the good news. The bad? She wanted to hear it again and again and is now making her mum make up Betty Bunny tales.
If you need any convincing that experienced, multiple performers can change a book, the book to hear is Tony Johnston’s The Cat with Seven Names (Recorded Books, 1 CD, .25 hours, ages 6 and up). In the book, several characters express their feelings about a meandering cat. Only after listening, did I realize that this structure might be a bit confusing in book form and the excellence of Johnston’s written voice perhaps not as apparent for children on the page. In audio format, the talented cast of Carol Monda, Lizan Mitchell, Henry Strozier, Pete Bradbury, Graham Winton, Brian Hutchinson, Stina Nielsen make sense of individual characters’ sensibilities and loneliness and reflects the impact of their collective understanding and connection at the story’s end. Pete Bradbury, for example, portrays a Latino widower, making listeners aware of a musical mix of interwoven Spanish and English as the “big gray gato turned up at mi casa” one afternoon as “una tomrmenta” “rained gatos y perros.” Henry Strozier plays an elderly man whose feels the cat “kinda filled up the house again” while it “moves softly through my place, like a trail of smoke, nimbly avoiding the walker.” Graham Winton captures the teasing tone of a police officer who tells the cat “move it, you big lump. I’m on duty” and Brian Hutchinson’s portrayal embraces the fears of a homeless vet who “nearly jumped out o’ my skin, thinking it was the enemy come to get me.” Together these voices, with the talents of these actors, make a wonderful symphony of spoken word.
The Dark by Lemony Snicket is read by Neil Gaiman (Hatchett, 6 minutes, ages brave 5 and up). Gaiman, who knows well the effect of a spine-tingling story, is the perfect narrator for this short audio. A bit of scary music serves as background as Gaiman tells readers, “Lazlo was afraid of the dark.” The background music continues in chilling rhythms as Gaiman’s precise narration tells the habits of the dark, pausing at just the right places for the fear factor to settle in as he describes how the Dark “spreads itself against the windows.” He inserts a mote of reassurance when he reminds listeners, “in the morning it would be back in the basement where it belonged.” He evokes a slight nervousness in Lazlo’s conversations as the Dark urges him to descend the basement stairs, sound effects add reality to Lazlo’s journey. Gaiman also gives the Dark a nuance tone that softens the threatening quality of the words. As the Dark offers Lazlo a symbol of its friendship, Gaiman colors Lazlo’s response with relief.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.