November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Audiobooks and Learning: Narrative Power | Listen In

SLJ1110w_FT_LisIn_A(Original Import)

Have you ever listened to a story that left you thinking, wanting to hear more, and waiting for the next one? That’s what many audiobook listeners do—listen, laugh out loud, even shed a tear as the power of the story leaves them wanting more.

This is why we look forward to sharing our experiences listening to audiobooks, with a special focus on using them with children, teens, librarians, teachers, and families. Our backgrounds in school and public libraries, our collaboration on many projects over (almost) 20 years, and our belief that audiobooks sustain and enhance the oral tradition bring to this column a strong basis for recommending audiobooks supporting instructional and family use. Our goal is to focus on examples of excellent audiobook productions paired with a specific theme and demonstrate their use in school and library settings.

Listening to audiobooks strengthens literacy skills such as fluency, language and vocabulary acquisition, and most importantly, reading comprehension, so we seek to build a bridge between good audiobooks and enhanced professional and instructional practice. We know that integrating audiobooks with curricular themes and standards is useful in developing instructional activities. All this, combined with the inherent pleasure of listening to a wonderful story, makes a compelling rationale for using audiobooks in schools and libraries.

For our debut column, we have chosen titles we particularly enjoy that highlight narrative pull—a staple of the writer’s toolkit essential to literature read aloud—paired with examples of learning standards and activities. These titles may be found in print on classroom lists, and their strong narratives make them outstanding choices for superb listening experiences as well. Future thematically-oriented columns, published bimonthly, will feature current and classic audiobooks that can easily be integrated into any classroom or library activity.

We hope you will listen in!

Elementary School

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Written, illustrated, and narrated by Simms Taback, CD. 14:27 min. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 1999. ISBN 978-1-591-12412-2. $29.95. PreS-Gr 2.

When Joseph’s much-loved overcoat becomes too worn to wear, the resourceful tailor makes smaller and smaller items until there is only enough cloth for a button. When the button is lost, Joseph tells the story, reinforcing the moral: you can always make something from nothing. Based on an old Yiddish folksong, Taback’s spirited, well-paced narration allows time to pour over the dense gouache, watercolor, collage, and pencil-and-ink illustrations. Playful sound effects extend the humor, while the Klezmatics’ rousing music reinforces the focus on Jewish culture.
Standard: Students will explore a variety of cultures by reading or listening to folktales.
Learning Activity: Have students create cut-outs of Joseph’s garments as they retell the story, demonstrating their understanding of the central message and its key details.

Martin’s Big Words. Written by Doreen Rappaport. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Narrated by Michael Clark Duncan, CD. 10 min. Weston Woods. 2002. CD with hardcover book, ISBN 978-1-55592-133-0: $29.95; CD with paperback book, ISBN 978-0-545-15251-8: $18.95. Gr 1-4.

This brief biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses his stirring speeches to give children a glimpse of Dr. King’s personal story as well as his impact on our national life through his work with the civil rights movement. Duncan’s somber reading, accompanied by music and civil rights-era songs delivers Dr. King’s words to a new generation. Collage illustrations make a bold statement, emphasizing the spare, lyrical text.
Standard: Students will identify the contributions of important figures in United States history.
Learning Activities: Younger children can read along, gaining word recognition; teachers can post the words on a white board for discussions establishing comprehension. Older students can write down what Dr. King’s “big words” mean to them.

The Trumpet of the Swan. Written and narrated by E. B. White. 4 CDs. Listening Library. 2001. ISBN 978-0-8072-8607-4. $38. Gr 2-5.

This classic story of overcoming adversity is admirably interpreted with flawless pacing and a New England brogue. Meeting Louis–a voiceless Trumpeter Swan–and discovering how he compensates for not being able to trumpet will have the youngest students, many of whom would struggle to read this independently, giggling at the antics of Louis, his pompous father, and the myriad people and animals populating Louis’s world. White’s beautifully crafted language convinces us that a swan can make friends with a boy, learn to read, and play a musical instrument in order to make himself heard.
Standard: Students will describe how language, setting, and information shape the author’s objective.
Learning Activities: Integrate the novel unit with wildlife studies. The Trumpeter Swan Society’s website (http://www.trumpeterswansociety.org/index.html) contains a wealth of information, including sound clips of the swans’ voices. Create an interactive Word Wall utilizing the novel’s rich vocabulary.

Middle School

The Hunchback Assignments. Written by Arthur Slade. Narrated by Jayne Entwistle. 6 CDs. 7:14 hrs. Listening Library. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7393-8022-2. $45. Gr 6-10.

Spot-on pitch and pacing augments a multi-faceted, imagined Victorian world in this first book of Slade’s carefully wrought steam
punk series. Modo, a young hunchback who is able to alter his deformed features to mimic those of others, is employed by the mysterious Mr. Socrates to save the British Empire. Mechanical monsters, a spunky female companion, and international intrigue make this a sure-fire hit for adventure-seeking reluctant readers.
Standard: Students will describe setting, character development, plot structure, theme, and conflict.
Learning Activity: Integrate art, science, technology, and language arts by creating and filming a book trailer highlighting the various steampunk aspects of the novel. (Your public library would probably love to post it on their website!)

Walk Two Moons. Written by Sharon Creech. Narrated by Hope Davis. 5 CDs. 5:27 hrs. HarperChildren’s Audio. 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-171909-7. $19.99. Gr 6-9.

Davis’s expertly voiced and carefully measured reading helps foster understanding and enjoyment of a multilayered Newbery winner that challenges readers with multiple plot strands and shifting perspectives. Sal, yearning for her lost mother, relates a friend’s harrowing tale to her grandparents while driving from Ohio to Idaho. The heartbreaking resolution of these intertwining mysteries is heightened by this sensitive performance.
Standard: Students will draw conclusions based on explicit and implied information.
Learning Activity: Track Sal’s journey on a map of the United States and find one new fact to post on the map at each place she stops.

Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway? Written by Avi. Narrated by John Randolph-Jones and Jeff Woodman, 4 CDs. 4 hrs. Recorded Books. 1993. ISBN 978-1-4025-5179-6. $46.75. Gr 5-8.

Set in WWII Brooklyn, NY, Frankie’s obsession with the radio defines his life and the lives of those around him in ways humorous, poignant, and nearly disastrous. Written entirely in dialogue, this fast-paced story is replete with spies, romance, and adventure. Randolph-Jones’s baritone voices the radio, while Woodman creates the unique characters in Frankie’s neighborhood.
Standard: Students will investigate the effects of World War II on the home front.
Learning Activity: Students narrate portions of the book to discover the process of creating characters through their own voices.

High School

Anansi Boys. Written by Neil Gaiman. Narrated by Lenny Henry. 10 CDs. approx. 10 hrs. HarperAudio. 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-082384-9. $39.95. Gr 9 Up.

Moving effortlessly among British, American, and Caribbean accents, Henry adds zest to Gaiman’s wacky novel of Fat Charlie Nancy, whose life is turned upside down when he discovers an unknown brother. It seems the Nancy boys are sons of African trickster god Anansi the Spider, each bearing some ancestral attributes. Humor and dastardly goings-on mark Fat Charlie’s search for a happy ending.
Standard: Students will examine how an author draws on and transforms source material (e.g., African folklore).
Learning Activity: Select a folktale and write a short story based on it, creating new characters.

Before I Die. Written by Jenny Downham. Narrated by Charlotte Parry. 6 CDs. 7:10 hrs. Listening Library. 2007. ISBN 978-0-7393-6290-7. $50. Gr 9 Up.

Sixteen-year-old Tessa, with terminal leukemia and little time to live, has a list of things to do before she dies, among them sex, drugs, breaking the law, and driving a car. Relentlessly honest narration and distinct character interpretations increase the emotional impact. Explicit sex scenes are sensitively handled and add to the realism of the story.
Standard: Students will analyze the author’s decisions on developing and relating elements of a story.
Learning Activity: Examine Tessa’s choices, exploring the reasons behind them, and discuss choices students might make in a similar situation.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Written by John Green and David Levithan. Narrated by MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl. Brilliance Audio. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4418-4260-2. $71.97. Gr 9 Up.

When Will’s very gay, very large friend deserts him at a concert, he never expects to meet someone with his exact name. Life for the two Will Graysons, already complicated, becomes more so in a novel exploring teen relationships from differing perspectives. Andrews and Podehl are pitch-perfect in their interpretations of both Wills and the larger-than-life friend binding them together.
Standard: Students will explore an author’s use of point of view to develop characters and themes.
Learning Activity: Give one theme for students to explore from their own points of view and compare and contrast the variety of stories created from this theme.


Sharon Grover is the Head of Youth Services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan, now retired, was an elementary and middle school librarian and the district library supervisor for Arlington (VA) Public Schools. She is the 2012 Odyssey Award Chair. They are co-authors of Listening to Learn: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy, to be published by ALA Editions later this year.

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