Thursday, June 16, 2011

Audiobook Month: Not All Audiobooks are Created Equal + Beth's Best Picks for Your Listening Pleasure

So I missed celebrating audiobook week over at Devourer of Books because it was my last week of school and I was scrambling to get grades in, awards finished, and my classroom cleaned out. Seeing as how the entire month of June is audiobook month, I wanted to write something to recognize all the great audiobooks out there. So often people judge audiobooks by one bad experience and I'm here to tell you - DON'T DO THAT! If you tried an audiobook once and you didn't like it, then chock it up to an ill-suited narrator. I can't tell you how many audiobooks I've abandoned due to poorly chosen narrators.

But what makes a good audiobook? Well, these are my top 5 criteria:

1) The narrator should SOUND like the character he or she is narrating for.
In my mind, a good audiobook narrator SOUNDS like the character they're narrating for. If the book is in first-person and the main character is a twelve-year-old girl, then the narrator needs to have a young-sounding, female voice.  In turn, if the main character is middle-aged, then I don't want to listen to a narrator that sounds eighteen. This seems like a very logical, "well-duh" point, but you'd be surprised at how many audiobook narrators are out there whose voices do not even come close to fitting the age range of the protagonist. That is not to say they don't have a great voice for audiobook narrating; it just means that their voice is the wrong one for that particular book.

Great audiobooks with age-appropriate narrators:
All-American Girl by Meg Cabot, narrated by Ariadne Meyers
Revolution by Jennifer Donnely, narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bearing
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, narrated by Jenna Lamia
Paper Towns by John Green, narrated by Dan John Miller
Feed by M.T. Anderson, narrated by David Aaron Baker
A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg, narrated by Kenya Brome
Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman, narrated by Max Casella
Rules by Cynthia Lord, narrated by Jessica Almasy

2) Narrators need to change their voices to represent different characters.
Again, this sounds like a given, but there are narrators out there who don't do this, or they do it so subtly that it's like they're not even trying. The master of audiobook voices is Jim Dale who narrates for the Harry Potter series, but these narrators do an awesome job as well:

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, narrated by Bahni Turpin (my #1 favorite audiobook of ALL TIME!)
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood, narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Going Bovine by Libba Bray, narrated by Erik Davies
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, narrated by Allan Corduner

3) Show the highs and lows of the book's emotional range
If a character is crying, then well, narrators should sound like they're crying; if the character is laughing, I want to hear some jollity in that person's voice!

 These audiobooks have narrators who really put their heart and soul into the story:
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, narrated by Jeannie Stith
Delirium by Lauren Oliver, narrated by Sarah Drew
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, narrated by Debra Wiseman and Joel Johnstone
Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine, narrated by Jodi Long
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Wiesberger, narrated by Bernadette Dunne

4) Be open to pleasant surprises
Sometimes you expect a narrator to be completely wrong for the part, and you find yourself pleasantly surprised at what a great job the person did. Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell was narrated by Phylicia Rashad, a very well-established television actress of Cosby Show fame. In this book she was narrating in first-person for an eleven-year-old girl. On paper, it should have been a recipe for disaster. Somehow, she managed to pull it off beautifully.

Other pleasant surprises:
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, narrated by John Ritter
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis narrated by James Avery (AKA "Uncle Phil" from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)

5) Don't assume that full cast productions are going to be great. 
Logically, full cast productions sound like they'll all be great because every character is a different actor so its easier to picture characters in your mind. But sometimes they're just awkward and choppy. Most of the time, however, the Full Cast Audio family does a great job at choosing just the right person to fit the character, which is more than I can say for some audiobook companies. Here are a few really good Full Cast productions:

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (This is not technically a Full Cast Audio production, but it does have multiple people narrating for the different characters)

So tell me, what audiobooks did you just love that you would recommend I add to this list?


  1. This is a LOVELY post. I found it extremely helpful. I actually have a post I'm working out about audiobooks. I've been experimenting for 5 months now and I feel like I'm still getting it wrong. I enjoyed one and one only. Everything else has been just "bleh." I'm trying to stay open.

  2. Glad to have been some help. My personal opinion is, if an audiobook is not working for you, abandon it. Don't let a poorly chosen narrator ruin what could be a really great book. I have recently come to the conclusion that I NEVER judge a book by its audiobook. If I abandon the audiobook because of a bad narrator, then I make sure I read the book sometime.

  3. anything read by Jim Dale. He could read a shopping list and it would sound wonderful.

  4. I am glad you mentioned Airborn by Oppel, (performed by Full Cast Audio) as that is my all-time favorite audiobook(well, besides Jim Dale and the Harry Potter books).
    One recent audiobook that I thought enhanced the written copy was The Help , by Kathryn Stockett. Hearing the characters' words through their voices really made the book come alive for me.

  5. I'm going to dissagree slightly. I think that some narrators try too hard to mimick the voice of the character they are reading the line for and can sometimes sound "overmodulated" --especially when reading characters of the opposite sex.

    If you listen to Jim Dale very closely, you'll notice that his voice doesn't change pitch very much between male and female characters, the tone changes (soft and gentle vs. hard and commanding).

    Fully agree with you on Airborn. Great full cast production. I also liked "His Dark Materials" by Philip Pullman.

    The success in full cast or "audiodrama" productions is in the production quality and direction. In full cast renderings, it's the director who drives the immagination bus for the reader/listener, hopefully in the direction that the writer intended!

    In single narrator situations, the narrator must assume the role of the director as well as the full cast of characters, so the quality of the narration becomes hugely dependant on how the narrator interprets the writer's intended tone, emotion, character and atmosphere.