Speaking of Audio: 2002 Grammys Highlight Some of the Year's Best Audiobooks

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By Robin Whitten

Awards bring a useful focus to audiobook recommendations, and spring produces a fine crop. On February 27, the Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards were splashed across the entertainment press, soon to be followed by the Academy Awards.

The Grammy Spoken Word Awards went, as usual, to high-profile performers. Quincy Jones picked up Best Spoken Word Album for Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (Simon & Schuster). Memoirs are often favorites with Grammy voters -- the 2001 winner was The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier (HarperAudio).

Jimmy Carter's An Hour Before Daylight (Simon & Schuster); Carl Reiner's reading of Mark Twain's Letters From the Earth (New Millennium); and a very interesting audio program, War Letters, edited by Andrew Carroll with readers Rob Lowe, Joan Allen, Tom Brokaw, and Harry Smith (Simon & Schuster), were also nominees for Spoken Word this year.

In the Spoken Comedy Album category, George Carlin says, "Quietly, almost in secret, really, I won my third Grammy award. For a book!" Napalm & Silly Putty (HighBridge Audio) followed last year's Brain Droppings, also from HighBridge, as the winner in Spoken Comedy Album.

Audiobooks that tie-in to some of the Oscar nominees are also potential strong sellers for booksellers. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, excellently read by Ed Herrmann (Simon & Schuster), gives listeners more insight into the complexities of Nobel Prize-winner John Nash's mental illness. Actor Joe Morton's performance of Black Hawk Down (Simon & Schuster) is nearly as compelling as the film, presenting the turmoil and chaos of combat, but without the graphic images of violence.

Lord of the Rings offers numerous audio options. For purists, try the single-voiced readings by British actor Rob Inglis from Recorded Books. Dramatized as audio theater, the best choice is the BBC full cast production from Random House. The music and sound effects of the dramatized version are a hit with families and listeners who want some of the same sweeping entertainment of the film version.

All of these Oscar tie-ins offer customers the format options of both CD and cassette. Audiobooks may well be the last bastion of audiocassettes, but booksellers should be assured that, while CD preference and availability are both growing, the cassette format is still viable for many listeners.

Parents or customers buying audiobooks for children are very responsive to "award-winners," and the list below featuring highlights from recent American Library Association (ALA) award-winners may be handy to keep near the shelf of children's and family-listening audios.

The Notable Children's Recordings competition puts the submitted audio programs through rigorous paces. The recordings are evaluated by a committee of a dozen public and school librarians on the following criteria:

  • respecting young people's intelligence and imagination;
  • exhibiting venturesome creativity; and
  • reflecting and encouraging the natural interest of children and young adolescents.

In a year-long process, both technical and aesthetic aspects of the audio experience are discussed and evaluated. The resulting list of 30 recordings in 2002 includes music-based programs, storytelling, and read-along sets. However, the list is dominated by single-voice audiobook narrations. In previous years, many of the audios have been available primarily through library channels, but with Random House's acquisition of Listening Library, many of the Notable Recording titles are easily available to booksellers.

Several titles overlap with the Grammy nominees and the just-announced Audie Awards Finalists, given by the Audio Publishers Association: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket's beginning episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, narrated by Tim Curry (Listening Library); Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie, read by Cherry Jones, (Listening Library); C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, read by Kenneth Branagh (HarperAudio).

A final note on essential audiobooks to keep in mind: Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass recently received the Whitbread Award's Book of the Year nod. It's also an Audie Award Finalist. The trilogy’s themes range from the influence of organized religions to the death of god, and its appeal should not be limited to young readers. The audio versions of the entire trilogy, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and Spyglass (Listening Library), are truly listening experiences of a lifetime.

ALA Notable Recordings 2002

The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry (Listening Library)
Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo, read by Cherry Jones (Listening Library)
Chet Gecko -- Private Eye, Bruce Hale, read by Jon Cryer (Listening Library)
The Fledgling, Jane Langton, read by Mary Beth Hurt (Listening Library)
Heaven Eyes, David Almond, read by Amanda Plummer (Listening Library)
Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, read by Neil Patrick Harris (Harper Children’s Audio)
Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan, read by Sarita Choudhury (Listening Library)
The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis, read by Kenneth Branagh (Harper Children’s Audio)
Mama Don’t Allow, Tom Chapin, (Live Oak Media, (800-788-1121), a 2002 Children's Spoken Word Grammy and ALA Notable Recording
Notes From a Liar and Her Dog, Gennifer Choldenko, read by Ariadne Meyers (Listening Library)
Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper, read by Alex Jennings (Listening Library)
The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot, read by Anne Hathaway (Listening Library)
The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry, (Listening Library)
Witness, Karen Hesse, performed by a Full Cast, Listening Library

Robin Whitten is editor and founder of AudioFile: The Audiobook Review. Bimonthly issues cover audiobook news, features, and reviews. Check it out at www.audiofilemagazine.com. Comments and questions welcome at [email protected].