From fact and fiction about World War II to complex tales of psychics and spooks, these must-have audiobooks for middle and high school students represent a wide range of genres. We are showcasing some of the finest audio performances and the highest level of vocal interpretation—from Will Patton’s fully voiced reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys to the dramatic full-cast interpretation of Walter Dean Myers’s poems in We Are America.
To compile our 2013 list of best audiobooks, we asked some audio-savvy school and public librarians for their recommendations of titles released from late 2012 through 2013. The following selections, arranged alphabetically, have been chosen for their outstanding text, narration, sound quality, and how well the audio enhances listeners’ appreciation of the written work. The titles span a broad spectrum of literary styles and many of them have received awards in print and/or audio format.
Not only do these audiobooks make for great listening, they are also excellent for classroom use, offering opportunities for research, group discussions, and writing projects that foster critical thinking and creativity. Many of the titles can be downloaded and are also available in Playaway® format, so be sure to check out audio distributors’ websites to determine the best options.
Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. By Steven Sheinkin. Narrated by Roy Samuelson. 6 CDs. 7:12 hrs. Listening Library. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8041-2220-7. $39.
Gr 5 Up –Sheinkin’s stellar, meticulously sourced Newbery Honor winner (Flash Point, 2012) provides an account of discovery, espionage, and revolutionary changes in physics and the modern world. The book reads like an international spy thriller and captures the science, technology, logistics, and politics of the race to build the first atomic bomb. Samuelson’s clear diction and measured delivery complement the subject matter, offering students the opportunity to absorb sometimes complex material. Have the print version available so students can peruse the archival photos.
Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers. By Tanya Lee Stone. Narrated by JD Jackson. 3 CDs. 3:03 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4692-6257-4. $54.97.
Gr 5 Up –This gripping historical account (Candlewick, 2013) expertly weaves together two narratives: the history of rampant racism in the U.S. military during World War II and the story of a group of courageous black soldiers determined to serve their country. Listeners are taken along on the emotional journey with the Triple Nickles as they leap forward from guard duty at The Parachute School into official paratrooper training, the first of its kind for blacks. Jackson ably narrates, bringing Stone’s book to life. The print version of this well-researched book features photos that perfectly complement both narratives.
Doll Bones. By Holly Black. Narrated by Nick Podehl. 5 CDs. 5:12 hrs. Listening Library. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8041-2292-4. $35.
Gr 4–7 –Black’s tale (S & S, 2013) of friendship and the trials of growing up is set against the backdrop of a spooky ghost story. Zach, Poppy, and Alice spend every afternoon concocting new adventures for their dolls and action figures. However, a cruel act by Zach’s father precipitates a series of events that send the three friends on a midnight quest to lay to rest the soul of a murdered girl that now inhabits a bone china doll. Podehl’s narration expertly embodies the three friends as well as the unforgettable characters Tin-Shoe Joe and the pink-haired librarian.
Joshua Dread. By Lee Bacon. Narrated by Maxwell Glick. 5 CDs. 5:46 hrs. Listening Library. 2013. ISBN 978-0-8041-2185-9. $45.
Gr 4–7 –Joshua is the son of supervillains, the Dread Duo. The sixth grader suddenly becomes “gyfted” with the power of spontaneous combustion. When new girl Sophie shows up at school, Josh finds another “gyfted” teen, but she’s also the daughter of Captain Justice, his parents’ archenemy. After his mom and dad are taken by smoke creatures, it’s up to Josh, Sophie, and his “ungyfted” best friend Milton to save the day. Glick captures the comic antics of the superheroes and villains in Bacon’s novel (Delacorte, 2012), and his voices for Joshua and Sophie reflect their unique personalities.
The One and Only Ivan. By Katherine Applegate. Narrated by Adam Grupper. 3 cassettes or 3 CDs. 3:45 hrs. Recorded Books. 2013. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4703-5124-3, CD: ISBN 978-1-4703-5123-6. $30.75.
Gr 3–7 –Ivan the silverback gorilla has lived a solitary life as the star of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 27 years, watching TV and painting. His companions are an elderly elephant named Stella, and Bob, a stray dog. Life changes for Ivan when Ruby, a baby elephant, is bought to replace Stella, who is dying. He vows to give Ruby a better life than he and Stella have had. It is Ivan’s art that sets him free, and his courage and resourcefulness that help him fulfill his promise. Grupper voices the ape in a gruff, pragmatic manner and gives unique voices to the other characters. Applegate’s Newbery winner (HarperCollins, 2012) is based on a true story.
See You at Harry’s. By Jo Knowles. Narrated by Kate Rudd. 5 CDs. 5:49 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4558-8958-7. $49.97.
Gr 7 Up –In Knowles’s novel (Candlewick, 2012), Fern must always take care of everything that the rest of her family is too busy to deal with, and she’s resentful. The glue that holds the family together is three-year-old Charlie, but when he dies in a freak accident while in Fern’s care, what starts out as a wonderfully realistic look at growing up in a semi-dysfunctional family turns into an equally realistic portrait of loss and guilt. Rudd provides a brilliant performance as she gives voice to the full breadth of grief experienced by each family member through the eyes, heart, and soul of Fern.
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World. By Sid Fleischman. Narrated by Fred Sullivan. 3 CDs. 3:40 hrs. AudioGo. 2012. ISBN 978-1-935430-92-6. $39.95.
Gr 5 Up –A strange way of walking, an odd wardrobe, and over-the-top gestures are just some of the characteristics of Charlie Chaplin. Fleischman penned a well-researched, detailed account (Greenwillow, 2010) of the silent-movie comedian’s life and slapstick comedy routines. Sullivan’s narration is superb, with just the right accents and pacing. Keep the book handy so listeners can look at the numerous photos.
Son. By Lois Lowry. Narrated by Bernadette Dunne. 7 CDs. 8:11 hrs. Listening Library. 2012. ISBN 978-0-449-01448-6. $47.
Gr 6 Up –In Lowry’s gripping conclusion (2012) to her quartet that began with The Giver (1993, both Houghton Mifflin), listeners are brought full circle, returning to the fate of Gabriel, the baby saved from “release” by Jonas. Claire develops an intense longing to find her son, leading her on a daunting and epic journey that weaves together the worlds and characters of the first three novels. Dunne’s reading captures the essence of all the characters and her whispery voice is perfectly suited to this dramatic tale. The powerful story—rich with themes of sacrifice, loss, and the importance of memory—will elicit exciting classroom discussions.
Splendors & Glooms. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Narrated by Davina Porter. 10 cassettes or 10 CDs. 12 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4498-3568-2, CD: ISBN 978-1-4498-3572-9. $108.75
Gr 4–8 –Porter is the perfect narrator to capture the nuances of the characters and the time period in Schlitz’s exceptional Newbery Honor gothic thriller (Candlewick, 2012) set in Dickensian London. For Clara’s 12th birthday, her parents hire a street performer named Grisini to put on a puppet show. When Clara vanishes the night of the show, Grisini and his young orphaned assistants are the prime suspects. Then Grisini also disappears, and Lizzie Rose and Parsefall must find the missing girl with the help of a sinister, wealthy old witch. Porter’s deliberate pacing intensifies the drama, and her talent with accents vividly paints each character in this Audie Award nominee.
We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart. By Walter Dean Myers. Narrated by a full cast. CD. 33:51 min. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4301-1112-2. $29.95.
Gr 3 Up –The sweeping scope of Myers’s free verse poems (HarperCollins, 2011) is captured beautifully and interpreted dramatically by a multicultural cast of narrators. This patriotic book celebrates free expression and uses word pictures to paint the depth and breadth of the varied American experience. The diverse panorama of people who built America is well represented. The soaring music, stirring sound effects, and talented readers energize the stories of people and events that shaped our nation.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. By Benjamin Alire Saenz. Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. 7 cassettes or 7 CDs. 7:30 hrs. Recorded Books. 2013. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4703-7019-0, CD: ISBN 978-4703-6512-7. $123.75.
Gr 9 Up –When Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim, neither boy has a clue how much their lives will change. Both teenagers are Mexican Americans living in El Paso, but Dante is self-assured and charismatic, while Ari is introverted and plagued with self-doubt. Dante moves to Chicago for a year and upon returning home tells Ari that he’s gay and in love with him. Ari’s confusion and eventual self-discovery is beautifully portrayed by Miranda, who does a stellar job of capturing the essences of both characters in this 2013 Printz and Stonewall Award-winning coming-of-age story (S & S, 2012).
Code Name Verity. By Elizabeth Wein. Narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell. 9 CDs. 10 hrs. Prod. by Bolinda Audio. Dist. by Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 978-1-7428-5764-0. $59.97.
Gr 9 Up –Wein’s award-winning novel (Hyperion, 2012) is a brilliant story of two young women during World War II who are brought together to support the British RAF. The story unfolds gracefully through written confessions of one of the women who is captured by Nazis after their plane goes down in France. After the accident, the friends are separated and listeners initially don’t know if they both survived. The tale is a combination of historical fiction, thriller, war drama, and spy story—and, through it all, a touching story of friendship wonderfully brought to life by the superb narrators, who are spot-on with Scottish, British, French, German, and English accents.
The Diviners. By Libba Bray. Narrated by January LaVoy. 15 CDs. 15:15 hrs. Listening Library. 2012. ISBN 978-0-449-80875-7. $60.
Gr 10 Up –Bray’s novel (Little, Brown, 2012) is stunning, suspenseful, and sure to leave listeners breathless. Thoroughly modern flapper Evie O’Neill’s psychic ability to divine secrets from inanimate objects gets her exiled from her stuffy Ohio town. Sent to stay with her uncle in Prohibition-era New York City, the last thing Evie expects is to be thrown headlong into a terrifying, and seemingly paranormal, serial-murder mystery. Intricately detailed story lines interweave perfectly with a cast of richly drawn characters. LaVoy’s exceptional narration skyrockets an already outstanding tale to the next level, and her perfect pacing gives it a constant edge-of-the-seat ambiance.
Dracula. By Bram Stoker. Narrated by Alan Cumming and a full cast. Digital Download. 15:30 hrs. Audio Theater/Audible. 2012. $29.95.
Gr 9 Up –The strength of this audiobook production of the 1897 classic is the performances by a full cast that includes the incomparable Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, and Katherine Kellgren. Voicing the various characters with individual accents and vocal styling makes for a memorable listening experience. Stoker’s tale of Victorian moral fears sparked the vampire genre and furnishes an excellent example of how listening to a terrifying story, beautifully performed, can raise text, plot, and characterization to a new level. Audie Award winner for Best Multi-voiced Performance and Distinctive Achievement in Production.
Eleanor and Park. By Rainbow Rowell. Narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhtra. 7 CDs. 8:57 hrs. Listening Library. 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-36828-5. $50.
Gr 9 Up –Eleanor, 15, is bullied at school because she’s overweight and dresses flamboyantly. Park is a half-Korean boy who has lived in Omaha, Nebraska, all his life but still feels like an outsider. This story of first love slowly builds from the first day Eleanor sits next to him on the school bus. Eleanor finds refuge from her miserable home life at Park’s house after school—until their relationship is tested. Parental abuse, bullying, family resilience, and love combine for a realistic look at adolescents under duress. The narrative points of view alternate between the protagonists, adding dimension to Rowell’s story (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013). Lowman and Malhtra do an excellent job of voicing the teens.
Fox Forever. By Mary E. Pearson. Narrated by Matthew Brown. 8 CDs. 9:29 hrs. Macmillan Audio. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4272-1517-8. $39.99.
Gr 9 Up –In the thrilling conclusion (Holt, 2013) to Pearson’s “Jenna Fox Chronicles,” Locke escapes the malicious Dr. Gatsbro with the aid of the Network. He heads for Boston to repay the Favor owed for their assistance, so that he can return to Jenna and be with the girl he’s loved for almost 300 years. Drawn deep into the struggle between the corrupt government and the Network, Locke finds himself defining who he wants to be in the hundreds of years he may have left to live. Brown’s even tones and deliberate pacing brilliantly keep listeners on the edge of their seats and capture Locke as he moves through Pearson’s explorations of morality, societal relationships, government control, and what defines humanity.
Maggot Moon. By Sally Gardner. Narrated by Robert Madge. 3 CDs. 3:40 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4692-7495-9. $54.97.
Gr 8 Up –In Gardener’s dystopian novel (Candlewick, 2013), Standish and his grandfather live in the lowest-ranked district of a totalitarian society. The Motherland is obsessed with an upcoming Moon landing which will establish their superiority over other countries—but it is all hype. Hector, the son of a mysterious family that moves next door, becomes Standish’s protector when he’s bullied at school. The boys build a spaceship in the attic and wonder what lays on the forbidden other side of the big wall behind their houses. When they find out, their lives are irrevocably changed. Madge, a 16-year-old English actor, turns in a mesmerizing performance of the first-person narration of this violent, dark, yet strangely hopeful story.
Monstrous Beauty. By Elizabeth Fama. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren. 8 CDs. 8 hrs. Macmillan Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4272-2217-6. $29.99.
Gr 9 Up –Mermaid lore and New England history are combined in a riveting tale that is both sensual and unsettling. Parallel stories follow 17-year-old Hester in 2002 and the ageless mermaid Syrenka in 1872. Kellgren provides first-rate narration, including the lovely Irish lilt of Pastor McKee and the gravelly sneers of the sea hag. History buffs, fantasy lovers, and mystery fans will all find something to please them in this engrossing 2013 Odyssey Award Honor Book (Macmillan, 2012).
Personal Effects. By E.M. Kokie. Narrated by Nick Podehl. 8 CDs. 9:08 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4692-0637-0. $54.97.
Gr 9 Up –Matt, 17, has had a rough time coping since his brother TJ’s death in Iraq left him alone with his abusive father. The teenager looks through his brother’s belongings and discovers an unmailed letter to Celia. Needing to deliver TJ’s final letter, Matt heads for Madison, Wisconsin, to find the woman, only to discover that there is even more to his brother’s secret than he’d thought. Podehl expertly narrates Kokie’s powerfully written, heart-wrenching debut novel (Candlewick, 2012), capturing Matt’s emotional struggle and fluidly evoking the wide gamut of emotions that he experiences.
The Raven Boys. By Maggie Stiefvater. Narrated by Will Patton. 10 CDs. 11:09 hrs. Scholastic Audio. 2012. ISBN 978-0-5454-6594-6. $79.99.
Gr 8 Up –From the dramatic introductory music to the complexity of plot and characterizations, Stiefvater’s story (Scholastic, 2012) of Blue, Gansey, and the Aglionby boys is masterfully performed by Patton. Listeners will be drawn into the world of Blue, her psychic family, and the mysterious group of boys who search for the ley line, a link to the long-dead Welsh king, Glendower. Patton’s fully voiced narration heightens an already fabulous tale and his unrushed pacing perfectly complements the setting and story.
Our audio experts:
Shari Fesko, Southfield Public Library, MI; Sarah Flood, Breckinridge County Public Library, Hardinsburg, KY; Sharon Grover, Hedberg Public Library, Hanesville, WI; Lizette Hannegan, former elementary and middle school librarian and chair of the 2012 Odyssey Award commitee; MaryAnn Karre, West Middle School, Binghamton, NY; Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA; 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; Deanna Romriell, Salt Lake City (UT) Public Library; Michaela Schied, Indian River Middle School, Philadelphia, NY; Lisa Taylor, Ocean County (NJ) Library; Janet Weber, Tigard (OR) Public Library.