Just how popular are audiobooks? Well, just check with your students. Along with the usual notebooks and textbooks in their backpacks, there’s bound to be tablets, ereaders, iPods, MP3 players, and, yes, audiobooks.
If the number of awards given to audiobooks—including the Audio Publishers Association’s Audie Award, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Odyssey Award, School Library Journal’s Best Audiobooks for Teens and Tweens, ALA’s Notable Audiobooks and Amazing Audiobooks, and a Grammy for the best spoken word album—is any indication of their popularity, they are a surefire favorite with children, tweens, and teens. And don’t forget that an entire month has been dedicated to the celebration of recorded books. Each June libraries nationwide offer special programs and authors and narrators rave about their experiences with audiobooks on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
We’ve come a long way since 1952, when Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was first recorded in an audio format. According to the Audio Publishers Association’s most recent survey, the number of audiobooks published from 2007 to 2010 has more than doubled—from just over 3,000 to 6,200. And The Library and Book Trade Almanac reports that more than 1,928 children’s and young adult audiobooks were published in 2011.
We asked some audio-savvy school and public librarians each to recommend 10 must-have audiobooks for middle school and high school students released in late 2011 and 2012. Their selections offer a rich variety of genres that run the gamut from realistic fiction to nonfiction and from historical fiction to fantasy and sci-fi. The choices also target some tough topics, including drug addiction, war, segregation, and, of course, young love. (For a list of the best audiobooks released in 2010–2011, see “Sonic Youth” in SLJ’s November 2011 issue [http://ow.ly/dM02X]).
The following titles, arranged alphabetically, have been selected for their outstanding text, narration, and sound production, and for how well the audio version enhances listeners’ appreciation of the written work. Many of these audiobooks have received Newbery, Odyssey, and Audie awards. Most of them can also be downloaded and are available in MP3 and Playaway formats. You’re sure to find something here for all of your listeners.
Chomp. By Carl Hiaasen. Narrated by James Van Der Beek. 5 CDs. 6:11 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-91642-6. $40.
Gr 6-9–Hiaasen takes on reality TV in his latest environmental adventure (Knopf, 2012). Wahoo is the assistant to his wild-animal wrangler father. Their land is home to everything from alligators to bobcats that star in TV shows and films. After Wahoo’s father suffers a serious injury and debts begin to pile up, they’re forced to accept a lucrative but questionable gig with the reality show Expedition Survival. Van Der Beek’s spot-on narration captures the cast of colorful characters in this fast-paced, humorous story, which includes some memorable boat chases and a gun-toting baddie.
City of Orphans. By Avi. Narrated by Chris Sorenson. 7 cassettes or 7 CDs. 8 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4618-4495-2, CD: ISBN 978-1-4618-4494-5. $77.75.
Gr 6-9–It’s 1893, and times are tough in New York City. Maks’s family lives in a tenement with almost 200 other people and everyone in his family has to help out with the rent. Maks is a “newsie,” standing on the corner every afternoon selling copies of The World. When the local Plug Uglies gang tries to rob him, Willa, a resilient homeless girl, comes to his rescue—and he decides to bring her home. They soon band together to help prove the innocence of Maks’s sister, who has been accused of stealing a watch and sent to prison. With youthful tones and lively narration, Sorenson does a wonderful job of reading Avi’s historical novel (Atheneum, 2011), making the period details come to life and enticing listeners to learn more about this era.
Dead End in Norvelt. By Jack Gantos. Narrated by author. 6 CDs. 7 hrs. Macmillan Audio. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4272-1356-3. $29.99.
Gr 5-8–It’s the summer of 1962, and Gantos is 12 years old in this “entirely true and wildly fictional” story (Farrar, 2011). He lives with his parents in Norvelt, PA, a town planned by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression. After he’s grounded for the summer, his mother loans him out to ancient Mrs. Volker to assist her in writing the town’s obituaries, and the pair develop an unusual friendship. Gantos delivers a wry, honest, irresistible performance of his Newbery Medal–winning, laugh-out-loud semiautobiographical tale, providing a pitch-perfect rendition of the boy’s sarcasm, exaggerations, and whining.
Ghetto Cowboy. By G. Neri. Narrated by JD Jackson. 4 CDs. 4:10 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4558-2150-1. $49.97.
Gr 5-8–Twelve-year-old Cole and his single mother live in Detroit. When she finds that she can’t handle him any longer, she drops him off in front of his father’s home in Philadelphia. Cole’s dad is an urban cowboy, part of a small group that cares for retired racehorses who live in the inner-city’s abandoned lots. Just as Cole begins to get comfortable with his new life, the city threatens to take away everything he has come to love and it’s time for him to step up. Based on real-life urban cowboys, Neri’s compelling tale (Candlewick, 2011), a 2012 Odyssey Honor book, is complemented by JD Jackson’s smooth narration, and it will resonate with city kids.
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. By Georgia Bragg. Narrated by L. J. Ganser. 4 cassettes or 4 CDs. 4:15 hrs. Recorded Books. 2011. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4618-0567-0, CD: ISBN 978-1-4618-0116-0. $46.75.
Gr 5-9–Bragg has her tongue firmly in cheek as she describes “how some of the most important people who ever lived—died” in this engaging nonfiction title (Walker, 2011). Moving chronologically from King Tut to Albert Einstein, the author explains in a conversational style which maladies brought down 19 of the great ones. Along the way, listeners will be clued in to Henry VIII’s gluttony, George Washington’s incredibly rotten teeth, and more. Ganser’s perfect timing, pauses, and tone wring every last ounce of disgusting, gross misery from the deaths of these famous people.
Inside Out and Back Again. By Thanhha Lai. Narrated by Doan Ly. 2 cassettes or 2 CDs. 2:30 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4640-2089-6, CD: ISBN 978-1-4640-2088-9. $25.75.
Gr 4-8–Lai’s semiautobiographical novel (HarperCollins, 2011), a National Book Award winner and a Newbery Honor Book, offers a heartbreaking look at the Vietnam War, what it means to be an immigrant in a new country, and the enduring strength of one family. Hà lives in Saigon, and her father has been missing in action for nine years. The threat of an invasion from the North forces Hà, her three brothers, and their mother to flee on a South Vietnamese naval ship. After a rough trip, they are rescued, go to America, and struggle to make a new life in Alabama. Told in verse, the story features a spirited child who misses her homeland and faces bullies and other unfriendly people, and horrid American food. Ly perfectly portrays Hà’s youth and innocence, and captures the humor and emotions of her adjustment to a new life, especially those involving the quirks of the English language.
Jefferson’s Sons. By Kimberly Brubaer Bradley. Narrated by Adenrele Ojo. 9 CDs. 10:24 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-94233-3. $40.
Gr 6-9–Bradley imagines what life would be like for the children of Sally Hemings, a slave, and Thomas Jefferson, her master, in this well-researched work of historical fiction (Dial, 2011) that offers important insights into slavery. Their four children have a better life than most slaves, learning to read and play the violin, but they’re burdened with the secret of being Jefferson’s offspring. Bradley tackles the paradox of Jefferson, a champion of freedom and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, owning and selling slaves. Ojo’s skilled narration navigates the many characters, accents, and viewpoints, eliciting the conflicting emotions that lie at the heart of this story.
The Lions of Little Rock. By Kristin Levine. Narrated Julia Whelan. 7 CDs. 8:23 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-96880-7. $55.
Gr 5-8–It’s 1958, a year after the Little Rock Nine made national news by attending Central School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the city’s high schools closed rather than permit integration to continue. Levine’s well-researched, detail-packed historical novel (Putnam, 2012) reveals the events of that “lost year” as seen through the eyes of Marlee, a shy 12-year-old who rarely speaks. On her first day of school, Marlee meets Liz, a bold and outspoken girl. Liz is determined to get Marlee to give an oral presentation with her in front of the class. But Liz is absent on the day of the presentation and won’t be returning to school. Rumors begin swirling that Liz is a black girl passing for white. Marlee contrives ways to see Liz, and soon their families’ concerns about the girls’ safety if they are seen together are proved warranted. Marlee realizes that if she wants things to change, she’s going to have to speak up. Whelan brings Marlee to life along with a range of secondary characters.
The Mighty Miss Malone. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Narrated by Bahni Turpin. 7 CDs. 7:55 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-96824-1. $44.
Gr 4-7–Deza Malone, whom readers briefly met in Curtis’s 2000 Newbery Medal winner, Bud, Not Buddy, is back. Deza is strong, independent, and the smartest student in class. She lives in Indiana with her African American family whose motto is “we are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” But when Deza’s father can’t find work during the Great Depression, he goes to his hometown of Flint, MI, promising to send for his loved ones when he finds a job. The letters never come and the family heads to Flint to find him. Curtis’s blend of realism and humor is enhanced by Turpin’s performance. She perfectly voices feisty Deza, who, despite rotting teeth and little to eat, continues to have hope for the future, as well as all the other characters. The era comes alive in this heartbreaking, hopeful, and at times hilarious novel (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks., 2012).
Tall Story. By Candy Gourlay. Narrated by Ramon De Ocampo and Jayne Entwistle. 5 CDs. 5:53 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-96875-3. $45.
Gr 6-9–Bernardo, who suffers from Gigantism, lives in a world where real life and magic collide. To the villagers of San Andres in the Philippines, he’s the reincarnation of their giant hero, Bernardo Carpio. To his younger sister, Andi, he’s the brother she has always loved and the freakishly tall boy who’s bound to attract way too much attention at school. When an earthquake devastates San Andres, he’s sure it’s his fault. Gourlay’s touching, captivating tale (Random/David Fickling Bks., 2011) of family, strong friendships, and acceptance is told in alternating chapters. De Ocampo and Entwistle shine as Bernardo and Andi, providing expert accents and emotional performances. Entwistle brings a bristling vivacity to the pint-size girl who only longs to be a star point guard on a basketball team and a true younger sister. De Ocampo lends Bernardo a seriousness that enhances his self-deprecation and desire to please everyone around him.
Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Narrated by author. 12 CDs. 14:30 hrs. Scholastic Audiobooks. 2011. ISBN 978-0-545-31538-8. $74.99.
Gr 9 Up–Bray takes aim at American corporate culture, politics, perceptions of physical attractiveness, and much more in this scathingly humorous tale (Scholastic, 2011) of a beauty pageant gone wrong. The author trumps her incredible storytelling skills with her narration. Each contestant has a distinct personality, and Bray turns in a tour-de-force performance, mastering a variety of accents—everything from a Texas twang to a California Valley Girl—and her male voices are flawless. “The Corporation,” the sponsor of the pageant, provides commercial breaks throughout. The story mimics many of today’s teen issues and masks their poignancy with humor. An Audie Award winner.
Beneath a Meth Moon. By Jacqueline Woodson. Narrated by Cassandra Campbell. 3 CDs. 3:42 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4558-5451-6. $49.97.
Gr 8 Up–Laurel celebrates her 15th birthday huddled against the rain and begging for money. This wasn’t always her life. She was happy during her pre-Hurricane Katrina days, but the drowning death of her mother and grandmother left her empty inside. T-Boom, the basketball team’s hot cocaptain, offers her the moon—meth that helps her forget the past. Woodson’s fabulous novel (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks., 2012) captures Laurel’s decline from basketball cheerleader to street-corner meth-head. This poignant tale deftly tackles the strangling grip of addiction, its eroding power on family and friends, and the strength that hope and love offer for redemption. Campbell is amazing in her ability to capture all the voices, especially the desperate pleas of a strung-out junkie.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone. By Laini Taylor. Narrated by Khristine Hvam. 10 CDs. 12:32 hrs. Hachette for AudioGo. 2011. ISBN 978-1-61113-770-5. $79.99.
Gr 9 Up–For centuries, the Chimera and the Seraphim have fought, unquestioningly, on opposite sides of the same war. Taylor’s lyrical and beautifully atmospheric tale (Little, Brown, 2011) centers around the forbidden love that develops between Karou, a human girl lovingly raised by four Chimera, or demons, and Akiva, a Seraphim soldier who has been brought up knowing only battle and blood. A deeper message warns that deadly wars are often fought over nothing more than ancient prejudices. Interwoven with this deliciously romantic tale of loss and hope are the gorgeous images of ancient cities, mythical creatures, and mysterious other worlds. Taylor’s masterful storytelling and outstanding character development are brought to brilliant life by Hvam’s spot-on narration, which captures the story’s many emotions and gives each character a distinct voice. An Audie Award winner.
The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Narrated by Kate Rudd. 6 CDs. 7:19 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4558-6987-9. $59.97.
Gr 9 Up–Green’s compelling novel (Dutton, 2012) is about life, love, and death. Hazel was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 13, but she’s still alive three years later. Her life is turned upside down when she meets handsome Augustus Waters at a support group for teens with cancer, and they embark on a relationship that has the potential to become an emotional grenade. Rudd’s relaxed narrative style expertly represents all of Green’s well-developed characters. The novel doesn’t pull any punches, and listeners’ responses will run the gamut from laughing out loud to sobbing..
How to Save a Life. By Sara Zarr. Narrated by Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris. 8 CDs. 9:54 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-96872-7. $60.
Gr 8 Up–Zarr delivers a touching, heartfelt tale (Little, Brown, 2011) of love, acceptance, and healing. Reeling from her father’s death, Jill hides her grief behind a wall of anger that has isolated her from friends and family. When her mom decides to adopt a baby from Mandy, a pregnant teen she met online, Jill’s life becomes even more emotionally chaotic. How these characters cope with their feelings and affect one another is a compelling story of loss, renewal, and the permutations of family. Told in alternating chapters, the well-chosen dual narration enhances the tale’s emotional depths. Meyers gives a powerful performance, evoking Jill’s alternating feelings of fear, grief, and anger. With a young, breathy voice, Morris perfectly conveys Mandy’s emotional näiveté as she struggles to do the best thing for her baby and longs for a loving home like the one she’s just found.
A Monster Calls. By Patrick Ness. Narrated by Jason Isaacs. 5 CDs. 4 hrs. with bonus CD. Brilliance Audio. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4558-2249-2. $54.97.
Gr 7 Up–Ness takes a tale inspired by the late Siobhan Dowd and turns it into a deeply moving and magical novel (Candlewick, 2011). Is 13-year-old Conor O’Malley imagining that the yew tree is thundering down the hill to tell him scary stories? Or are his mother’s advancing cancer and the cruelty of classroom bullies distorting his perceptions? When his mother starts on a last-ditch treatment using medicine from yew trees, Conor wants to believe that she’ll recover. The ultimately supportive monster helps Conor face the truth as the teen painfully lets go. Isaacs perfectly captures the characters’ complex emotional states—from the powerful and vociferous yew tree monster to the weakness of Connor’s dying mother. An interview with Ness explores the novel’s development. The bonus CD has pen-and-ink artwork by Jim Kay, which reflects the mood of this haunting tale of acceptance and healing.
Pandemonium. By Lauren Oliver. Narrated by Sarah Drew. 9 CDs. 10:34 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library. Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 978-0-307- 96887-7. $65.
Gr 9 Up –Oliver plunges listeners back into Lena’s life in the riveting sequel to Delirium (2011, both HarperCollins). Chapters alternate between Then and Now. Then: a week has passed since Lena escaped into the Wilds. Badly injured, she awakens to find herself being cared for by a small renegade band of Uncureds. While mourning the separation from her mother and the death of her first love, Alex, she builds a new life. Now: Lena, using an alias, is living in New York, working with a small group of resisters. When Julian, the government’s youth leader for the Cured movement, and Lena are taken hostage, they must scheme, fight, and even kill their way to freedom. This well-crafted sci-fi tale is layered with deceit, revenge, and forbidden love. Drew’s fabulous narration is pitch-perfect in delivering hissing anger, spitting sarcasm, warbling pleas, and whispered yearnings.
Rotters. By Daniel Kraus. Narrated by Kirby Heyborne. 13 CDs. 16:18 hrs. Prod. by Listening Library.Dist. by Listening Library/Books on Tape. ISBN 978-0-307-94182-4. $65.
Gr 10 Up–After the death of his mother, Joey Crouch’s life spirals rapidly downward. He’s sent to Iowa to live with his estranged father, who scrounges a living as a grave robber. Lonely and miserable at school, Joey joins his father on a digging expedition. What follows is both a coming-of-age story and a frightening glimpse into the darkest depths of the human psyche. Listeners will be intrigued and repulsed in equal measure by Kraus’s stunningly gruesome tale (Delacorte, 2011), a 2012 Odyssey Award winner, that’s riddled with graphic details of decomposing corpses and overflows with the pain of teen angst pushed past its limits. Heyborne expertly embodies Joey, and his adept reading elevates an already fantastic story to a whole new level. Not for the faint of heart.
The Scorpio Races. By Maggie Stiefvater. Narrated by Steve West and Fiona Hardingham. 10 CDs. 12 hrs. Scholastic Audiobooks. 2011. ISBN 978-0-545-35705-0. $79.99.
Gr 7 Up–On the island of Thisby, October is a time of mounting tension. The carnivorous capaill uisce, or water horses, come ashore, and the island men prepare to prove their courage by outrunning the deadly beasts. Sean has won the race many times and plans to win again. Puck, the first girl who has ever entered it, hopes to win enough money to save her home and keep her family together. She is attracted to Sean, and they soon realize that seeing each other succeed is as important as winning the race for themselves. Stiefvater’s romantic fantasy (Scholastic, 2011) was an Odyssey Honor book. With English accents, narrators West and Hardingham add an authentic rhythm to the text and create a mesmerizing listening experience. Intense action, riveting suspense, and two determined protagonists make this a competition to remember.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic. By Allan Wolf. Narrated by a full cast. 9 CDs. 10:16 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4558-2937-8. $59.97.
Gr 9 Up–Wolf incorporates both accurate historical accounts and his own speculative research into his captivating novel in verse (Candlewick, 2011). This imagined account of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage features 24 personal narratives ranging from the ship’s captain to a refugee in third class to the iceberg itself. The story includes clear-eyed perspectives on everything from boarding the ship to the desperate attempts to evacuate it to the coroners’ reports. The ensemble narrators unfold another brilliant facet of this historical-fiction gem, usingvaried accents and nuances for the large cast of characters. An Audie Award winner.
Our audio experts:
Alissa Bach, Oxford Public Library, MI; Ann Brownson, Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston; Donna Cardon, Provo (UT) City Library; Sharon Grover, Hedberg Public Library, Hanesville, WI; Lizette Hannegan, former elementary and middle school librarian and chair of the 2012 Odyssey Award commitee; Jessica Miller, New Britain (CT) Public Library; Julie Paladino, East Chapel Hill (NC) High School; Cheryl Preisendorfer, Twinsburg (OH) High School; Amanda Raklovits, Champaign (IL) Public Library; and Janet Weber, Tigard (OR) Public Library.