Speaking of Audio: Teens Read, But Can They Also Listen?

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By Robin F.Whitten

Teens seem to regard summertime reading in two ways -- as the opportunity to read for pleasure and to choose books freely or as the burden of a required "summer reading list" (which comes complete with nagging parents). Audiobooks can offer solutions for both camps, as well as the family traveling with teenagers on long car trips.

For enthusiastic readers, audiobooks give more opportunities to sink into books that interest them, and to follow authors, genres, or topics. Even without the structure of the school year, summer can be busy for kids, and audiobooks are the perfect on-the-go reading companions.

Bestsellers and teen favorites are increasingly easy to find. Topping the Book Sense Teen Reads 76 list is Joyce Carol Oates's Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (Harper) with celebs Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe reading -- a pair who should get any teen's attention. Also from the Book Sense list are The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick (Listening Library) and The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Listening Library). As teens often like to read other titles by authors they enjoy, it's good that both authors have more titles on audio -- Crossley-Holland's At the Crossing Places (Listening Library, coming this fall) and Philbrick's The Mighty (Bantam Books-Audio).

The National Book Award Young People's Lit winners for the last three years are good choices to have on hand:

  • The 2001 winner, True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff (along with her earlier work, Make Lemonade)
  • The 2000 winner, Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
  • The 1999 winner, When Zachery Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt (along with her titles My Louisiana Sky and Dancing in Cadillac Light)

All these are published by Listening Library (Random House). Listening Library and HarperAudio are the two primary audio publishers for young people's audio.

A few more topflight suggestions for the engaged young readers looking for audio include:

  • The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan, an Audie Award finalist in two categories this year and read by Tan and Joan Chen (New Millennium)
  • The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, praised for Margot Dionne's fine narration (Random House)
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo, this year's Pulitzer winner and read by Ron McLarty (HarperAudio)
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Maya Angelou's newest addition to her autobiography (Random House)

Now some ideas for booksellers to help the teen who comes in clutching a school reading list. I dredged up my own son's well-folded reading list and checked for titles that undoubtedly grace many a list. The summer reading lists often change very little, alas, so these suggestions should be good for future seasons!

The results of my search for audiobook options were good. For exceptional recordings of the classics, the Cover to Cover classics from Audio Partners (800-788-3123) top the list. The British recordings of Pride and Prejudice, The Age of Innocence, Rebecca, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities are just a few of the several dozen titles that have been universally praised. These editions make the literature accessible to even reluctant readers, and, of course, parents may get a chance to share the experience.

Contemporary American titles on the list include Into Thin Air, with Jon Krakauer reading his own work (Random Audio). Also reading their own works are Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes (Simon & Schuster) and Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer (Harper). All of these choices are unabridged -- an important point, if teens are reading them for school.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird is bound to be on most lists, and Roses Prichard gives a fine performance in Audio Partners' version. Alexander Scourby's reading of The Great Gatsby, also Audio Partners, has just been re-released on CD.

The Steinbeck centenary isn't necessary to keep his books in demand. So, when you display the various Steinbeck titles, check for the audios from Penguin -- The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Two anthologies, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (HarperAudio) and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (Audio Partners), with performances by dozens of actors and authors, offer a variety of voices and styles.

Tolkien is still on the minds of teens who enjoyed the movie, and single-voiced readings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are available on both CD and cassette from Recorded Books. Another way to enjoy Tolkein is the wonderful dramatized performances of the stories from Random House. While these programs probably won't score summer reading points, teens and the whole family will get hours of entertainment.

Here are some other full-cast programs that will keep family travelers enthralled:

  • Philip Pullman's trilogy, which includes The Golden Compass (Random House), The Subtle Knife (Bantam Books-Audio), and The Amber Spyglass (Bantam Books-Audio)
  • Or, for something new, Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville, an exciting program from author Coville's new audio publishing company, Full Cast Audio (315-471-7500)

Finally, don't let these audio ideas get stored away as September approaches -- great literature on audio can entice all year round.

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].

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