“Audio is a great doorway to a love of literature,” says Katherine Kellgren, award-winning young adult audiobook narrator, lifelong audiobook listener, and supporter of the SYNC program, which offers free YA audiobook downloads each summer.
This year, Kellgren will appear twice in the SYNC program. Her recording of Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling (HarperAudio) will be available starting tomorrow through June 12. Later in the summer, her recording of Enchanted (Brilliance Audio) by Alethea Kontis—which was nominated for an Audie Award—will be available from August 8 to August 14.
Ahead of the first download’s release and a busy calendar of events promoting audiobooks, SLJ caught with Kellgren for a candid chat about her start in the field, the joys—and challenges—of narrating YA literature, the importance of audio in boosting kids’ literacy, and her upcoming projects. Kellgren even stopped by our New York City offices to record a few video segments for us.
How did you get started in the field of narrating audiobooks?
The first audiobook…I actually made myself for my father. I was living in England and my dad was in New York, and he had Parkinson’s disease, and it affected his ability to read. He used to be a great reader, and it was very frustrating for him. He had a detective author that he absolutely loved, Freeman Wills Crofts, who wrote a lot in the 1920s and 1930s. So I found an out-of-print book and recorded it for [him]. [It] was called The Box Office Murders. It was really silly! The first line was something like, [in heavy accent] “Little did Inspector French know when he picked up the telephone he was embarking upon one of the most sinister and dastardly episodes in his career.” It was hilarious.
At that point I was in drama school, London Academy of Music, and we’d done some audio acting training there as well as stage acting training, but doing this book suddenly reminded me how much I loved to listen to audiobooks when I was a child, a teenager and preteen. I was a voracious listener of audiobooks, and in fact audiobooks introduced me to the work of a lot of my favorite authors.
After [my father] got more and more ill, I moved back to New York and I spent a lot of time reading to him in person, and he chose actually quite a lot of young adult books that he’d loved when he was a child and a teen. And he was a very dignified man, a banker and a very serious individual, but he also always loved children’s literature. So I read him Treasure Island and a book by John Masefield called Martin Hyde: The Duke’s Messenger, which was a kind of boy’s adventure story. And as I was sitting there reading for him, I thought, ‘you know, I’d really like to try to find a job reading an audiobook.’
Can you remember some of your earliest favorite recordings?
When I was about 13 or so, I got a double cassette tape called Ages of Man; it was John Gielgud reading speeches from Shakespeare. And I loved this. I memorized all of the speeches. By listening to him reading, Shakespeare—to me, an early teenager—suddenly seemed a lot less intimidating, and a lot more approachable. Because when you have somebody who is not only such a wonderful actor as he was, but who understood the language so well and spoke it so intelligently, it gives you a huge head start yourself in understanding the language. So I started reading Shakespeare’s plays because I felt more comfortable doing so, by listening to these cassettes…. and it sort of spiraled from there.
And that happened with a lot of authors. I would first be introduced to their work on audio and then I would start reading it in print. I remember I also had—and I still listen to these things, by the way, all the time—Ralph Richardson Reads ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then I went out and read the actual long-form poem and started getting into Coleridge, and in this way, my love of reading was really stimulated and encouraged by audio. Which is why I think SYNC is so wonderful, because it gives a chance for young listeners to be exposed to the work not only of classic authors but wonderful contemporary authors, and hopefully encourages them both to listen more and to read more.
Can you tell us more about audiobooks and the SYNC program?
I think there’s an increasing awareness in how important [it is], children listening to audiobooks and the impact that has on their literacy. And speaking as someone who lived this, someone who was a child and really was encouraged to read by listening to audiobooks, I am so totally behind this idea. So programs like SYNC are a wonderful way to introduce both educators and children to audiobooks as tool to help promote reading and literacy skills in younger kids. Recently, I went on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR, and I wrote up all these children’s literacy talking points so I could use specifics, and I found this really amazing thing in Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature by Mary Burkey—who I know and just love, she’s a wonderful librarian—a quote that said, ‘the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.’ And that’s not only a parent reading to a child, an audiobook can also do that.
So I think the structure of SYNC is really amazing; that they have every week a classic book and a then a contemporary book, both on a similar theme. So teens who have both kinds of interests will be attracted by one or the other of those genres, hopefully. And then, hopefully, encouraged by one audiobook they’ll go for another, reaching out for an audiobook that they haven’t necessarily encountered before and maybe discover something new that they love.
What are some of your favorite titles that you’ve recorded over the years?
It’s hard to say! Recently, both of the series that are on SYNC were a huge, huge amount of fun to record. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is just a hilariously written series. I just loved doing it. It has such a scope to be a complete ham, as I am. It has all sorts of wacky voices and animal sounds and just generalized madness. I guess it’s not in the first book, but the second book features thespian pirates and a chase through the streets of London with a parrot squawking. And I have to thank the brilliant author for this because she writes such delicious material. And Enchanted is just a beautifully written fairy tale mash-up book. It’s very magical but it’s also very funny, so it’s a lovely combination of humor and a magical element to it. [And] there are tons of others.
Another of my most favorite series is “Bloody Jack” [by Claire de Loon, Listen & Live Audio] and it’s about a little girl who dresses as a boy and joins the Royal Navy and fights pirates. It all takes place in the end of the 18th century, and it’s just one swashbuckling adventure after another. We just finished recording Book 10, and she gets into such scrapes, you wouldn’t believe. That one is very fun, too.
What titles are on your wish list?
I’d love to do Moll Flanders! I’d love to do Vanity Fair. A lot of the books that are my favorite books, I would be completely inappropriate [as narrator]. One of my most favorite books is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy—and that would be very hard to put on audio in the first place because there are a lot of visual elements to the book—but that’s narrated from the point of view of a man. And I also love P.G. Wodehouse a lot, but again, most of the books are narrated from the point of view of a man. Damon Runyon I love as well, but it’s all gangsters, and male ones at that.
How do you prepare for recording a book?
The first thing I do is read the book through really carefully at home, and I’ll make a note of any words I have to look up for pronunciations, any accents that might come up in the book that I’ll need to study up on. I make notes of dialect, and also if there are any songs in the book. I can’t sing them if they’re not in the public domain, but I do a lot of books like the “Bloody Jack” series where each book will have 10 or 15 traditional sea shanties and ballads. And I will go through and find all the original music for them and sing them, or sing whatever parts of them the author has put into the book.
So you utilize your musical training?
Yes, exactly. And I think, where appropriate, it enhances the experience, to have original tunes of songs. It lends a bit of atmosphere to a book. Because I think that when an author is writing the book, they’re probably thinking of that tune, and what it evokes to a reader. So I try to give the full service if I possibly can and sing the song.
What about animal sounds or sound effects?
[laughs]. Oh, totally. Well, there are a number of websites that you can find animal sounds on. I recently discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has an amazing website for bird calls. And it is spectacular. You can search and find bird calls of zillions of different species.
So you’ll include bird calls in a book?
Where appropriate. In the most recent ‘Incorrigible Children’ book, the author had a very aggravated ostrich giving a warning cry, and she had written ‘foo, foo, foo.’ [laughs] How do I make that convincingly aggressive and menacing to the listener?
And sometimes…well, I remember one book that was all about a search for a missing artifact, and our heroes discover that inside this artifact is a rolled up scroll which contains a lost Eroica Variation of Beethoven. And the author wrote out an entire paragraph that was just, ‘dee dee dee dum, deedle deedle dee dum dum!’ So I just sat down at the piano and played. [I thought], ‘oh my god, what am I going to do?’ And I had to spend days listening to the Eroica Variations and then trying to write something that sounded very similar to that and would fit all the ‘deedle deedle dums’ that the author had written. And then kind of sing it at the end of the book. [laughs] I don’t think when authors write things out they are always thinking about the audiobook. Sometimes it’s enormous fun, but there are a lot of very challenging things in books that can take a lot of work to put into audio form.
What was that book?
A Rather Curious Engagement. I’m definitely not claiming that my version of the Eroica Variations is exactly that brilliant but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. [laughs]
You are a passionate advocate for audiobooks and literacy. Can you tell us more?
I am always delighted to be asked to appear and to talk about children’s literacy and audiobooks, and talking to librarians and educators and kids wherever I can. There are some librarians who are my heroes, who are real stars of advocacy for children’s audio, like Mary Burkey and Sharon Grover, and Lissette Hannigan, who have written books for ALA, and the people who serve on Odyssey committees. Those are the people who are the real stars.
Coming at it as a narrator, because it was so important to me as a child, I feel that if there is any way that I can share that with another child growing up now and they could get the pleasure I got from listening to audio, I feel that that’s a very worthy thing to be involved in.
There’s something about being told a story; there’s a kind of intimate experience there that you can get from no other medium, really. And just as I loved it when I was little and my dad would read to me, or when I was a little older and I was listening to all those cassette tapes, the magic of being told a story is something that can really broaden your horizons and bring you a lot of joy. So I try to get out and talk to anyone I can about that experience.
What do you like to listen to for fun?
I always, since I was a kid, listen to audiobooks. I just listened to a really beautiful one called Oddly Normal, a memoir of this New York Times reporter and his son, his son coming out as gay, and the family dynamics. And it was really a beautiful book. He read that himself and he did a beautiful job.
And every single year since it came out, I listen to this recording of Alfred Molina reading Treasure Island, for some reason! [laughs] I can’t get enough of it.
Recently I was listening to something that I love to listen to over and over, The Roald Dahl Audio Collection. It’s him reading from his own work, and I’m particularly fond of his recording of Fantastic Mr. Fox. It really is kind of a spiritual experience. If you haven’t heard it, it is too much fun for words. And my husband is actually a theater critic and we were going to see Matilda, and so I played him this, and he loved it. It’s a great recording. And I listen to early jazz and classical music and stuff like that, but there’s a lot of audiobooks in there.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m working on a nine-book series, the “Elizabeth the First Mysteries.” Those are very fun books to read and I’m really enjoying recording them. [They] require a lot of research, but a lot of fun research: Elizabethan medical lore, and there was a whole book that involved Renaissance lute music, and I had to look up all sorts of old songs and then write tunes based on John Dowland.
This summer, I will be going to ALA in Chicago to be a part of the Odysseys—one of the books I read got the Odyssey Honor [Monstrous Beauty (Macmillan Audio] by Elizabeth Fama]—and then I’m also going to be in an audio festival in Kansas City, MO, called the Hear Now Festival. It’s going to feature not only audiobook narration but audio drama, and all sorts of different audio art. And I’m looking forward to have the chance to read from audiobooks and talking to people about what goes into making them.
What advice do you have for librarians seeking to boost interest in audiobooks?
I guess some people think that listening is ‘cheating’ and that if you listen to a book you are unlikely to read a book—but my experience is exactly the opposite. That listening to books makes you want to read books, and opens up worlds to you, and it’s a great tool to bring students into a knowledge of literature and a love of reading. It introduces you to literature in a way that’s like nothing else.
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