As audiobooks for kids continue to grow in popularity, AudioFile’s Emily Connelly explains some of the reasons why, and talks us through her pick of the five best audiobooks for kids and teens of 2022.
What did you look for when selecting the best audiobooks for kids of 2022?
AudioFile is always looking at the quality of the narration and everything that goes into the production of an audiobook, and what stands out as something to listen to, as opposed to reading the print book. We’re listening for where somebody has gone above and beyond with the production, and whether something was nominated for an Earphones Award by the reviewer – whether the reviewer thought it was really special, too. All the AudioFile editors have a say, but really it comes down to our editor Robin Whitten and our managing editor Jenn Dowell, who make the final list of the best audiobooks of the year.
I think we’re seeing continued trends toward more audiobook listening. The pandemic made it so that a lot of people, when doing school remotely, were turning more to audiobooks as a way to be read to. Kids were assigned audiobooks to listen to for class, and discovered that as a great way to read. It makes a lot of sense, because everyone likes having a story told to them, and it’s an exciting way to connect with literature.
The benefits of audiobooks are obvious for struggling or visually impaired readers, but can you explain other reasons why audiobooks have continued to grow in popularity in 2022, other than kids doing more learning online?
I think that people are realising that it’s an excellent way to read a story – you get to have a story told to you. The narrators can do an amazing job of helping connect you to the story emotionally. When they’re narrating, they’re bringing all these different characters to life, or helping illuminate different concepts.
“I highly recommended audiobooks, for all ages”
For me, it can help me connect with the book in a different way. It’s great for readers to have different options for being told a story. The popularity of graphic novels is obvious, people love to see stories visually that way. Some kids are intimidated by big chapter books, so listening to an audiobook can be a way to access a chapter book and have a longer story told to you that’s maybe beyond what they could read with their eyes.
I think it’s a great way to encounter different ideas and hear different voices, too. It’s so fun when you hear a great accent in an audiobook that you wouldn’t have known if you were reading it on the paper, that’s another way audiobooks can really bring the story to life for kids.
Let’s move on to your first pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2022, A Is for Oboe: The Orchestra’s Alphabet. Auerbach is best known as a composer and concert pianist and Nelson is an award-winning poet; is this as good a combination as it sounds?
It is! When our reviewer sent in her review of this one she said something like ‘this is amazing, you have to listen to it.’ So I grabbed it to listen to and was so impressed with the combination of the authors along with the narrator, Thomas Quasthoff. He’s a Grammy-winning opera singer, and he has such a rich voice. He’s German, and he’s got this deep baritone, and I loved getting to hear him narrate their beautiful words. Plus, it’s told with musical accompaniment throughout the whole story.
It’s an alphabet book, so you’re following the alphabet and learning more about orchestras and all the different instruments and concepts that go into making these performances. As you go, you get to hear these selections of music, some that are familiar and some that are less familiar. You can hear what an English horn sounds like and hear the lilting flute after hearing the poem about each. It’s just so beautifully done. I’m sure the picture book is beautiful, but getting to hear the music is a showstopper.
This audiobook seems like a fantastic resource for teachers, and for parents who want to introduce children to different musical instruments.
Definitely. I know, because we listened to it in the car over and over again. You’re getting to hear a poem about each letter, and the beautiful selections of music. It’s such a great resource, but also just an enjoyable listen. It’s fun, too. The title is A Is for Oboe; the reason is not necessarily intuitive, so it’s fun to see what each letter stands for. You get to piece it together as you listen and learn a little bit.
Would you say this 2022 audiobook for kids is a particularly good one for family listening?
Definitely. I think younger listeners could listen to it on their own, for sure. But I think it’s fun to listen to together, and I wound up explaining some of the ideas or some of the ways the poems were written to my younger child. Like, for the English horn, he says “he’s melancholy, proud, he’s a philosopher whose velvet truths embrace us with our own unspoken want”. It’s just such interesting poetry! You can pause, or listen to the music and talk through what that means, and about how hearing music can make you feel different emotions. It’s a beautiful listen, and as soon as I heard it, it stood out as a new favourite.
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I think even younger listeners would have a fun time hearing it, but probably around five or so is when you might have them understanding more of the concepts. It’s a musical piece in addition to an audiobook, so I think anybody would enjoy listening to it.
Let’s talk about your next pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2022: A Different Pond by Bao Phi. The author is also the audiobook narrator.
Yes! And I would say this is an audiobook to listen to along with the picture book to get the most out of the story.
I agree. I think the illustrator has been very thoughtful about the details she has included.
It’s about a boy who’s going fishing with his dad early in the morning to catch fish for their family. He learns a little bit more about his father’s past in Vietnam and what brought them to the United States. It’s such a sweet story about the relationship between the father and son. I loved hearing the son’s pride in helping catch dinner and have food for their family. There are children who are very young who are experiencing things like the characters in the story and like the author, Bao Phi. It’s special to get to hear the author narrate it himself, it adds to the personal feeling of the story. You have his words, and if you’re looking at the book you have Thi Bui’s illustrations evoking so much of that past. Then, in the audiobook, there are sound effects and a little bit of music, and it all evokes this specific time.
At the end, they have an author’s note and an illustrator’s note; it talks a bit about their own experiences, too, which is helpful for kids to listen to and connect with. I always appreciate when they include that in audiobooks, because they help give some context for what might not initially be obvious, and help illuminate what really happened, what Bao’s experience was like as a child and how it’s similar to and different from the story he’s telling here.
Let’s move on to your next pick of the best 2022 audiobooks for kids: The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat. I love her work, her world building.
This is one that was a family favourite. I’ve heard it many times, because my daughter loves it. She’s listened to it over and over! It’s such a beautiful fantasy audiobook. It’s more for middle-grade readers, probably age eight and up. Sura Siu, who narrates, does a marvellous job, she has a great time with all the different characters, telling the story that takes you out to sea on a ship and exploring new worlds. It goes into more tense situations, and she does a great job, not making it too scary but really helping you feel all the emotions around the story.
It’s a very engaging fantasy adventure, but there are serious themes as well, including searching for a new continent and thinking through the consequences of that.
I think that she has a good balance between the adventure story and the more serious subjects and how those tie together and specifically connect to her mapmaking. Throughout the book, Sai is learning about how to make maps, and gradually her mentor is teaching her about what happens after you’ve made this detailed map and other people go out to explore that place and have an impact on the people there. I think it’s interesting seeing how Christina Soontornvat has a background as a scientist, and I think that factors into the story as well, where you get a great sense of the ocean environments and the places they’re seeing, but also the impact that people can have on the environment and what we can do to try to preserve it. It’s a Thai-inspired fantasy world, so you’ve got the different place names and people’s names that Sura does a great job narrating to make it all feel very real. I think it is an excellent audiobook, and one that stood out for its beautiful narration and also the complex story it’s telling for younger readers.
Your next pick of the best 2022 audiobooks for kids is What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix. This is a book for teenagers. Can you tell me about it?
This audiobook is Tasha Suri’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights. She’s usually a fantasy writer. This is more of a departure for her into historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. It really stood out to me, because Alex Williams and Becca Hirani, the narrators, did a beautiful job making it an absorbing and intense audiobook, they really connect with the characters’ emotions. They’re both from Yorkshire and are South Asian, like the characters in the story are. I appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into the casting. And I think it all was very, very successful.
“Everyone likes having a story told to them”
Tasha Suri adapted the story so you’re hearing directly from the characters Heathcliff and Cathy, so it makes it more of an immediate story than the original. You’re really in the heads of these characters and hearing their anger and grief and determination. The original is a beautiful book, but I could see schools having an amazing time comparing the stories that they both tell. In this one, Heathcliff is, as described in the original, a darker skinned boy who grew up in and apart from Cathy’s family. We get into the backstory, and I don’t want to spoil anything but he’s always been told he’s probably the son of a lascar, a sailor from India, and you get into the story of why he was brought to the Heights and what draws Cathy and him together. It is delving into the impact of colonisation, and the lasting impact that can have on people, and how to heal from that and keep going and find joy despite difficult circumstances. The two narrators trade off on different chapters with the two characters, and it’s a well written and beautifully narrated story.
We have come to your last pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2022: All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, which is also for teens or young adults. The print book has three narrators, does the audiobook use that format, too?
It does. Again, they are taking turns narrating these different characters in different chapters. Sabaa Tahir just won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with this book in the United States, which was thrilling to get to watch online and see and celebrate for her.
It does, we have reviewed that series well. I actually read that series with my eyes, and despite it being gigantic books read them very quickly because they’re so intense and engaging.
This was a departure for her going into a contemporary YA story, talking about a family with some connections to her own story. She grew up in the California desert, like the characters here, and helped her family run a motel. Of the three different characters, two are best friends who are in a difficult spot with each other. And the third is the mother, whose voice is telling her story in the past leading up to the present. It gets into some heavier topics, where the three of them are facing a lot of hardship. At the same time, there are beautiful relationships that you’re discovering. While there’s a lot of anger and grief, there’s also a lot of joy that’s found.
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Deepti Gupta, who is the narrator who portrays the mother’s perspective, will have an interview with us on our podcast in December and I’m looking forward to hearing what she thinks about how the audiobook came together, because it’s always interesting when there are multiple perspectives and multiple voices performing, how they work together and how they all work to make that emotional connection for us listeners. It’s a really powerful story, and I’m so glad that it was honoured with the National Book Award. Getting to listen to these narrators tell it from these characters’ perspectives, it really adds to it and helps you make that connection to the story.
This story has several heavy themes, including addiction, abuse and racism. But it doesn’t get overloaded or depressing, I think it comes together beautifully.
Definitely. It made it a very emotional listen, and made it feel very immediate. I think she handled the impacts of addiction and all of those different factors very well. Probably, that’s why people are connecting with it so much, too: she didn’t shy away from any difficult topics.
The narrators who I didn’t mention yet, Kamran R. Khan and Kausar Mohammed who narrate Salahudin and Noor, they’re both newer narrators and were really well cast. They amplify all the rich emotions in the story.
I like having Misbah, the mother, as one of the three narrators, giving readers two generations’ points of view in a YA novel.
Especially where there are first and second generation immigrants to the country and how that changes their perspectives, I thought it was helpful to get context for who Misbah is and where she comes from and how she feels about living in California and finding community there.
Am I correct in thinking that four of your five picks of the best audiobooks for kids were published in 2022 and came out as audiobooks straight away?
Yes, most of them are. The picture book we talked about, A Different Pond, is one that came out a few years ago. That’s the last category where I think publishers are probably waiting and seeing how a book is received before doing an audiobook, because they don’t always make as much sense without the illustrations. But I think it’s great because it’s more accessible if there are more ways to read it, for people who can’t read with their eyes, or for people who like to hear a story. I love that there are even graphic novels being adapted into audiobooks too, which is a whole other fun way to get to hear a story.
Graphic novels are sometimes very successful audiobooks, which is quite surprising in a way.
It is, but if they’re putting care into it, with a full cast, and sound effects or added context to make it understandable if you’re just listening, I think it’s great. And I think it’s fun to have different ways to access stories.
Here we have only talked about five of the best children’s and young adult audiobooks of 2022, but there are even more to enjoy from those lists. I picked five which were particularly touching to me. I hope people take the list, and the broader list of best audiobooks, as a jumping-off point to look into all the different excellent audiobooks that come out. Remember that they definitely count as reading! And they are a very fun way to read a book and a very important way to connect with literature that maybe is showing different perspectives from you, or reflecting experiences from your life. I highly recommended audiobooks, for all ages.
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