March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Classic Summer: Pair Audiobooks and Films to Spark Discussion and Writing | Listen In

Audio/TheatreTeachers, librarians, and students sometimes struggle with assignments for summer reading, especially when it comes to the time-honored classics. The audiobook productions featured here will engage students in listening and give them new appreciation for literature that is timeless, of the highest quality, and an outstanding example of the genre. These classics shine a spotlight on language, lyrical expression, and character development.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide several ways to incorporate what students have learned from listening to classics during the summer as starting points for individual writing and classroom discussion:

[CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2] Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

[CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1c] Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

A natural extension for listening to these audiobooks is viewing their film adaptations, a compare and contrast study that can be found in several reading, speaking, and listening Standards. The experience offers abundant opportunities for student discussion and writing.

Literary and modern classics are included in many national and regional lists for the college bound, such as the comprehensive list from the Arrowhead Library System in Wisconsin ( Check with your local public library for copies of classics in print, audio, or DVD formats to round out lesson plans.

All Quiet on the Western Front. Written by Erich Maria Remarque. Trans. by A. W. Wheen. Narrated by Frank Muller. 6 CDs. 7 hrs. Recorded Books. 1994. ISBN 978-0-7887-3441-0. $72.75. Gr 9 Up
This World War I narrative was originally published in 1929, while the senseless destruction of the Great War was still fresh in the minds of those who lived through its horrors. Hearing 19-year-old Paul Baumer describe his experiences as a German recruit, the depth of his deprivation in the trenches, the cruel loss of life, and the cumulative devastation on mind and body is heart wrenching. Muller’s understated performance, with its steady pacing and paradoxically soothing vocal timbre, enhances the lyrical language and elicits a palpable sense of the terror faced by Paul and his friends through the unrelenting close combat. In 1930, the movie adaptation won the Academy Award for best picture and best director and is now in the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board’s Film Registry (

The Call of the Wild. Written by Jack London. Narrated by Jeff Daniels. 3 CDs. 3:15 hrs. Listening Library. 2010. ISBN 978-0-3077-1026-0. $30. Gr 8 Up
Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, June 20–July 18, 1903, this classic remains relevant over 100 years later. The universal themes of survival, kindness, cruelty, and natural instinct are strengthened by Daniels’s performance. His voicing provides just the right conversational and friendly tone with a touch of comfortable rasp, adding fresh energy to the timeless story. Buck, a four-year-old St. Bernard–and Scotch Shepherd cross breed, who weighs 140 pounds, has his life changed forever when he is kidnapped and taken to the cold bleakness of the Arctic to work with Klondike gold miners. A film adaptation of this story starring Clark Gable was released in 1935. Comparing and contrasting the audio production and the film will offer students many chances to write about or discuss the two versions.

Dracula. Written by Bram Stoker. Narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, 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, all seasoned and award-winning narrators. Voicing the various characters with individual accents and unique vocal stylings makes for a memorable listening experience. Tension builds immediately as listeners become privy to the journal of young solicitor Jonathan Harker, who travels from England to Dracula’s castle and, with a sense of grave foreboding, realizes that he is a prisoner of the undead Count. This chilling narrative opens Stoker’s tale of Victorian moral fears that sparked the vampire genre and furnishes an excellent example of how listening to a terrifying story, performed beautifully, raises text, plot, and characterization to a new level. Viewing the 1935 movie adaptation of Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi, also on the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board Film Registry) will encourage discussion not only of classic literature, but also of classic filmmaking.

Fahrenheit 451. Written by Ray Bradbury. Narrated by Stephen Hoye. 5 CDs. 5:30 hrs. Tantor Media. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4001-4818-9. $24.99. Gr 9 Up
In this foremost example of dystopian fiction, Bradbury twists the heroic role of firefighters. In a futuristic society, firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Specifically, they burn books and the subversive ideas contained within their pages. The trouble begins when one fireman, Guy Montag, begins to question the system and seeks to escape the control of the city. Hoye is a superb guide through this terrifying world, moving both action and reflection along with exactly the right pacing. First published in 1953, the story remains disturbingly contemporary and the ending, with its determination to keep books alive by memorizing them and speaking them aloud, is well suited to the audio medium. The 1996 film, directed by François Truffaut and starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, veers from the original story, making it particularly useful as a student exploration of the differences between Hoye’s interpretation of Bradbury’s words and Truffaut’s greater liberties with the text.

Hamlet. Written by William Shakespeare. Narrated by Simon Russell Beale, Imogen Stubbs, Jane Lapotaire, and a full cast. 3 CDs, 3:25 hrs. AudioGo. 2006. ISBN 978-0-7927-2985-3. $33.95. Gr 9 Up
Perhaps the best known of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this story of destiny and revenge pits a young prince against the murderous uncle who has stolen the throne and queen. Students often struggle when reading Shakespeare, and listening can serve as a bridge, facilitating understanding. This excellent full-cast production includes musical interludes and an insert with scene-by-scene summaries, making it not only a strong listening experience, but also the perfect adjunct to literary appreciation. Fans of the long-running British science-fiction series Doctor Who, and David Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor, will be mesmerized by the 2010 BBC television production featuring Tennant as Hamlet, with Patrick Stewart as the nefarious uncle, Claudius.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (and The Adventures of the Dancing Men). Written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Narrated by Simon Prebble. 6 CDs. 6:30 hrs. Tantor Media. 2009. ISBN 978-1-4001-1515-0. $17.99. Gr 9 Up
Sherlock Holmes takes on the intriguing case of the heir to the Baskerville estate who seems destined to be the next victim of the mysterious, and deadly, hound thought to have killed several of his ancestors. Dodgy servants, an escaped prisoner, and a supposed brother-and-sister duo test the famous detective’s mettle. Prebble is more than up to the task of directing listeners through myriad characters, clues, and deceptions. Subtle voicing differentiates the large cast and expert pacing heightens the tension. Be sure to have students watch the first-rate British (Granada Television) production starring Jeremy Brett as Conan Doyle’s brilliant, but decidedly peculiar detective.

Things Fall Apart. Written by Chinua Achebe. Narrated by Peter Francis James. 6 CDs. 6:30 hrs. Recorded Books. 1997. ISBN 978-1-4025-4462-0. $72.75. Gr 9 Up
Published in 1958, Achebe’s seminal work heralds the revolution that preceded Nigerian independence in 1960. Designed to teach students about the rich Igbo heritage, it tells the heartbreaking tale of Okonkwo’s single-minded rise to success among his people and the surrounding villages, followed by a heinous act, banishment, and descent into total failure. James narrates this story of the European colonization of Africa, the encroachment of Christianity, and the disintegration of traditional cultures with appropriate gravitas and measured pacing, bringing out all of the nuances of the text. Students can listen to Achebe read a part of the story ( and then watch a portion of a production that includes the same text ( for comparison. Round out the unit with PBS journalist Jeffrey Brown’s interview with Achebe on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart (

To Kill a Mockingbird. Written by Harper Lee. Narrated by Sissy Spacek. 11 CDs. 12 hrs. Harper Audio. 2006. ISBN 978-0-06-1808-12-8. $34.99. Gr 8 Up
Spacek, with her lilting Southern accent, perfectly captures the voice of Scout, the young girl whose life is thrown into turmoil when her father, the upright and highly ethical lawyer Atticus Finch, takes on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Their sleepy Alabama town may never be the same and Spacek’s exceptional pacing propels this Pulitzer Prize-winner—a staple of many high school reading lists—to its inexorable conclusion. The 1962 film, starring Gregory Peck (who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch), was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995.

Sharon Grover is Head of Youth Services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan was a school librarian and the district library supervisor for the Arlington (VA) Public Schools before her retirement. They are co-authors of Listening to Learn: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy (ALA Editions, 2011).