Whether you're on a car journey or sitting on the sofa together at home, listening to audiobooks with kids can be an incredible experience. Some will make you laugh, some will make you weep. Many will help us develop empathy for other human beings in the world around us. Here Emily Connelly, Assistant Editor at AudioFile, talks us through the magazine's choices of the best audiobooks for kids of 2020.
These are your choices of the best 2020 audiobooks for kids, and we’re going to talk about what’s so good about each of them in a minute. Before we start, though, could you tell me how the audiobooks on this list were selected: what kind of age they go up to, and what you were looking for?
I did a quick tabulation and there are almost 250 children’s audiobooks that AudioFile has reviewed over the year. So, we’re looking through a lot. Our editors, Robin and Jenn, were the ones doing the choosing, but I advocated for some of my favourites. There are titles on the list that are for younger listeners, probably from about age three. If they’re old enough to sit and enjoy a picture book, they’ll love to listen to the audiobook as they look at the book. Technically the list goes up to ages 12 or 14, but I’d say even teenage listeners would benefit a lot from listening to some of these titles. They would enjoy them. It’s a good range.
When you say AudioFile reviewed around 250 books, is that pretty average in terms of the number of audiobooks that are coming out for kids each year?
Audiobook publishing has been growing year after year. And this year, I think, a lot of people came to realize just how important it can be to have something for your kids to do to keep them entertained and engaged with books as a break from screen time. AudioFile does review a really good number of kids’ audiobooks every year, but there are definitely many more out there in 2020 that we didn’t get to review. So there certainly are books that, when I was talking to my daughter about having this conversation with you this morning, she was like, ‘What! You don’t have this book on your list!?!’ And I had to explain we didn’t review it because there are so many audiobooks for kids. So, with that caveat: of the audiobooks that we’ve reviewed this year, for younger readers, we think these are among the best.
Let’s talk about the picture books first. These are books for younger readers, up to around age 8.
It might seem funny to be talking about picture books when we’re talking about the best audiobooks, but certainly I remember my first engagement with audio as a kid was read-alongs with a cassette tape listening to a book as I flipped through the pages. It’s a similar idea here.
Picture books have large illustrations on the page and a little bit of text. Translating that to audio can be a trick, because you don’t have to have the book in front of you to enjoy these titles. They have a soundscape and you’re really getting immersed in the story that way. The narrators are good at pulling out different voices for each character so you get a sense of who they are.
The first one on the list, for example, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, I have read many times with my kids. They love it. They want to hear it every day. And they also really love listening to the audiobook. They love having the ability to choose between listening to mom read it and listening to the narrator read it. That’s a lot of fun.
Tell me what ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, by Raúl the Third, is about.
The main character is a wolf, Little Lobo. There are all these anthropomorphic animals. It reminds me of the Richard Scarry stories, where you have these anthropomorphic animals going about their day. If you look at the picture book, there are all these things you can see going on in the background, but if you listen to the audiobook, you can hear all the sounds of Little Lobo and his friends going to the market, buying food for the luchadores, who are these pro wrestlers who are very hungry and want some food before their match. It’s such a sweet story of them going to talk to the luchadores, going to the different food trucks, picking out all the different foods, and then bringing it back for a big feast before the show.
Gary Tiedemann is the narrator and he does a great job with all the different character voices. They’re not too silly but they’re definitely a little silly. There’s a rooster who’s talking in sort of a rooster-y voice and there’s all the different wrestlers from a little Chihuahua to a big bull. Listening to the book you get a sense of who all those characters are and their friendship.
There’s something about the rhythm of the way it’s written and the style of the narration that is really appealing to younger listeners. There’s also Spanish interwoven in it—it’s set in a border town between the US and Mexico. It’s a lot of fun to listen to.
I guess it’s also a nice way for kids to start learning some words of Spanish?
Definitely. I don’t have a good handle on Spanish, so for them, hearing it from somebody who is a Spanish speaker, helps a lot with the pronunciations. They’re getting a sense of how to actually say these words. There’s even a glossary at the end with all these different food words that my four-year-old will sit and listen to—and then correct me.
This is a book that’s partly about finding all these different foods for the different creatures, so they’re also getting a sense of all these foods they haven’t had before, but have seen Mom and Dad eating. Maybe they want to try tamales now, they’re excited about having salsa. That’s a food we’re now having a lot more of with the kids at our house.
Let’s talk about the other picture book for younger readers on your list of the best kids audiobooks of 2020. This is Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome. What do you like it?
Overground Railroad is a book where you get the book and the CD to listen to together. I really like Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome as an author and illustrator pair. They did Before She was Harriet last year, which was an Audie Award winner.
It looks beautiful.
They’re beautiful pictures, and they really did such a marvellous job making a soundscape that goes along with it. So you hear crickets as this little girl and her parents are getting ready to leave early in the morning and you hear the whistle of the train and the rustle of people getting settled in their seats. Even without the picture book, you know what’s happening in the story. It’s narrated by Shayna Small and Dion Graham. Shayna is voicing most of it as this little girl, Ruth Ellen. She and her parents are part of the overground railroad, which the author explains she learned about in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s about people leaving the South and going north to get out of oppressive tenant farming contracts, or just trying to find a better place to live.
“These are all books where the narrator does an amazing job of drawing you into the story”
I loved that Shayna is so good at making this younger character really relatable. She’s excited and she’s nervous about moving and then, within the story too, she’s reflecting on what she sees as she’s going along on the train. She’s reading a book out loud to her mother about Frederick Douglass and so their stories sort of pair together.
Dion Graham’s voice comes in as the conductor calling out all the stops along the way, so you also get that sense of momentum, moving forward through their journey and then, when they arrive in New York, how that feels, to be in the big city. It can be a tricky thing to adapt a picture book into audio, but they did it just right with this one.
It’s a piece of history that is great to explore with children. It wasn’t only the Underground Railroad. In the US, there is also a long history of Black families needing to move and make their lives in new places. How did that feel?
When is the book set?
It’s set in 1939: I can see the date on the newspaper somebody is reading. As they move north, her family’s allowed to move from the colored car at the front, right behind the engine, to other parts of the train. The little girl, Ruth Ellen, is excited to be moving, but then these white passengers block them and don’t let them sit down. It’s a reflection of going from the South where there was segregation to the North, where in name there wasn’t segregation, but in action there certainly was.
It’s a book that you would listen to with your kids and then talk through. I would say it’s for eight- or nine-year-olds, but younger readers too.
You’re making me want to buy it, even though my kids are 12, 13 and 14.
Honestly, having little kids is a great excuse for looking at all these different books and reading them. I did a library science degree, so I had a lot of fun studying children’s books—and adult books—in that too.
Let’s talk about When Stars are Scattered next, which is for kids that are a bit older and is set in a refugee camp.
This is a graphic novel that was adapted into audio. That can be a real trick, because if you think about how a graphic novel works, you get so much information from the images that you’re seeing. The book has a full cast to make this story really come to life. You get a sense of what it feels like from the dialogue, but you also have a soundscape—so you are hearing what it’s like to be in this refugee camp. This is a book that’s definitely for slightly older readers, I would say eight to 12 years and older.
It’s inspired by a refugee from Somalia, Omar Mohamed, who is one of the co-authors. It’s roughly the story of him growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya and trying to get to safety in America. It’s about spending so many years there, waiting.
His voice is narrated by Faysal Ahmed who has a very quiet sort of voice. I think that reflects the character very well. He really wants to go to school. He’s a young child, but he’s also responsible for taking care of his younger brother, because they got separated from their mom and they saw their father die. It’s a really heartbreaking story. It’s one that you certainly would also really want to talk through with your kids.
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I have the graphic novel too. Omar Mohamed wrote the book with Victoria Jamieson. She wrote Roller Girl, which was a popular graphic novel. They got connected to each other and wrote this story. When you read the graphic novel, you have all this imagery, but when you’re listening to the audiobook, you’re hearing the crowd all talking. The main character is called Omar, like the author. You can hear him talking to his younger brother, Hassan. Hassan has a developmental disability. He’s a very sweet character but it’s also challenging for Omar, because Hassan runs away and gets lost in this giant camp, but they do have others to help them. It’s just such an amazing story.
I listened to it before I read the book in print and got that sense of what it was like with all the tents in the camp, all the different people that they meet and they’re friends with, their community that’s there. One of the interesting parts of this book is that you can really hear how much they all care for each other. They did a great job with the narrations. I’m not sure how many years he spent in this camp before being able to leave to go to America, but even though it’s an unstable place to be in, that’s where they were comfortable and that’s where they grew up. Then they leave all those people behind to go to a new country.
And that full cast element—it’s almost like watching a movie sometimes isn’t it?
Yes, the full cast and all the sound effects definitely makes for that cinematic feel when you’re listening. It makes it so you really are transported into that situation.
I’m definitely going to get that one because I’d like to know what it’s like living in a refugee camp for years.
So much of it is about waiting. You get that sense too, of the passage of time over the years. They’re just waiting to hear back if their application was accepted. They’re seeing other families leave and just wanting to have that certainty but also wanting to figure out how to get reconnected to their mom. If they leave the refugee camp how will that happen?
Are they reconnected in the end?
They are. I think it’s closely tied to his life. There were some characters that they made up in the story to give it a different kind of narrative. It’s about a young boy, but he has some friends who are younger girls and it shows what it’s like for them. There’s pressure on them to not keep being in school and to focus on getting married. I think they handled that very well.
We’ve got two titles left on our list of the best kids’ audiobooks of 2020. Let’s talk about Before the Ever After.
This is a novel, and it’s no secret that Jacqueline Woodson is an incredible author. She is a favourite of ours at AudioFile. We’ve loved audiobooks that she recorded herself, but in this case, there’s a narrator, Guy Lockard, who is just brilliant.
It’s a story about a young boy, ZJ, who really idolizes his father. His father was a former pro football player who had to stop playing because of this mysterious illness. It’s set in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when doctors hadn’t made the connection yet between chronic brain injuries and what they were seeing in these football players, but eventually they figure out he has CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The story is told from the point of view of ZJ, who is 12. It’s written so that you’re picking things up the way he would, so he’s hearing his parents talk and seeing them go to all these doctors’ appointments. He’s watching his father change a lot and struggling to understand it.
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I love hearing Guy Lockard narrate—he also does many of Jason Reynolds’s audiobooks. He has such a lively voice and really emphasizes the difference between before, when ZJ was used to his father picking him up and throwing him on his shoulders and all the fans cheering him on and what it was like after, the ‘ever after’ that he talks about, the uncertainty of what’s happening to his father.
This is one audiobook that I was listening to and crying, just thinking of my own family’s history with Alzheimer’s. It’s definitely going to be a tough topic for some younger listeners if they’ve had any similar experiences with family members, but it’s also an affirming story. 2020 has been such a tough year for so many kids and I think it can be helpful to have realistic fiction to get a sense of how others deal with uncertainty and how they can overcome it. The book doesn’t end with anything being solved, necessarily, but it ends with him finding a way to be connected to his dad and his mom.
Apart from ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat they’re actually all quite tough topics, aren’t they?
I know. Every year the list is a bit different. I think part of it is that when you’re listening to audiobooks, you get that really strong emotional connection to the story. These are all books where the narrator does an amazing job of drawing you into the story—even if it’s such a specific story, like this one, about a football injury. I have no connection to football, but I played sports in high school and college and the heartbreak of being so connected to a sport and having that taken away from you because of the impact of that sport, it’s intense.
“When you’re listening to audiobooks, you get that really strong emotional connection to the story”
There are some tough stories on this list, but every single one of them also has a bright side. In this one, ZJ has such close friendships, it’s very sweet. His parents are loving and kind and supportive even through this uncertainty and he has good friends and teachers who are there for him. So, I think that’s really good to see.
I think fiction being realistic is definitely a plus. You don’t want kids to live in blissful ignorance and then suddenly discover what life is really like.
I know and I also think it helps kids—and adults—develop empathy, to be listening to stories of others. It can be so affirming to read a book and see some of yourself in it. Even if it’s somebody who maybe doesn’t look like you or isn’t from the same community as you. In When Stars are Scattered you’re reading about a refugee camp—but you’re also reading about this kid who is dealing with friendships and worrying about schoolwork and how he can get everything done. That’s all so relatable. And waiting to grow up: I think that’s another commonality that we have.
So the last book is King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. This book just won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and it also deals with a tough topic.
Like I said, I wasn’t a part of choosing all the titles, but this was another book where I said, ‘You really should consider having this on the list because it is such a powerful story.’ Ron Butler’s narration is so moving. Kacen Callender’s writing is so transporting into whatever story they’re telling.
In this story we’re in Louisiana with a young Black boy, who is grieving his older brother who had just died, suddenly. It’s a tough topic, certainly, but we’re in a year where so many people are experiencing such trauma. Ron Butler’s narration just brings these different characters off of the page and into your ears. His voice for this kid, King, really captures being a younger kid thinking about grief and about school and about changing friendships.
He will switch between characters and you’ll be like, ‘Is this the same narrator?’ He really gets those voices. You hear the quietness and the young voice of King and then his parents, who are dealing with their own grief of losing a son. We do have a video that Ron Butler recorded for us about his narration.
“I think listening to the stories of others helps kids—and adults—develop empathy”
King also feels a real disconnect and uncertainty about himself because he’s realizing that he’s gay. He doesn’t really know how to talk about that with his family or with anyone else and he’s worried what his older brother would have said if he’d found that out before he died.
Also, as part of the story, his ex-best friend Sandy has gone missing and the town is looking for him and worried about him. King finds Sandy in his backyard hiding in a tent. So it’s also about their friendship. Sandy had come out to him and that was how they had broken up as friends. So it’s a complicated story. There’s a lot going on in the book.
But it just has so much emotion to it. I think it’s another example of one where, listening to it, you’re just getting that whole connection with these characters in a way I don’t know if you would get as much if you were just reading it. You get all that empathy and it’s bittersweet but it’s also hopeful. It’s a beautiful audiobook.
Who are the dragonflies?
King has such a sweet imagination and he imagines that his brother has been reincarnated as a dragonfly. So he will go down to the Bayou and talk to the dragonflies and imagine that his brother is there. That’s a lovely piece of the book too. It’s teaching kids that there are lots of different ways to grieve when you’re faced with tragedy. It’s just such a sweet story.
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