Audiobooks are a wonderful way for children and teenagers to access stories, whether by themselves or as a shared listening experience. AudioFile'sEmily Connelly talks us through her selection of five of the best audiobooks for children and teenagers in 2021.
Looking back over 2021, it seems there is an increasing number of audiobooks coming out; your picks of the best audiobooks for kids are all books published this year.
We Are Still Here came out in print first. But otherwise, yes, they’re mostly coming out in audio at the same time, which is great. So that way, anybody can access the books any way they like.
It’s great, but it must make it harder for you to pick the best audiobooks of the year from an overview?
Yes. There is a very impressive number of audiobooks getting published every year. And a wider variety of children’s books are coming out on audio, for sure. You’ve got picture books for younger kids, all the way up to excellent young adult audio books that we’ll talk about today. It’s a huge range, and certainly getting them all reviewed is challenging. So as a practice with our reviews, we’re focusing on the titles that we think people will want to know about, making sure those get reviewed, and sharing the best of them with our readers.
Can you tell me a bit about what criteria you had in selecting the best audiobooks for kids of 2021?
We look at all of the reviews that we’ve published, and focus on those that have received outstanding reviews. We have a designation called the Earphones Award, which many of the ones that wind up on the best list have gotten. But we’re also looking to see whether you get something more out of the listening experience.
More than you would by just reading the book?
If it’s a story told with a specific accent, or a specific voice, it can make all the difference to hear it coming from someone who speaks similarly to the characters. There are so many memoirs where hearing the author narrating it themselves, for example, can really make a huge impact on what it is like to understand their story. Obviously, audiobooks are wonderful and accessible for people who aren’t able to read with their eyes. But there also are benefits beyond that, where you’re getting a whole other experience when you’re listening to it. We’re looking at that as well.
So for kids who haven’t learned to read yet, if an adult doesn’t have time to read for them, they can listen to the audiobook and leaf through the pages, for example?
Yes, and even just listen on their own. Kids can listen at a higher reading level than they can read. My kids listen a lot to much longer chapter books than they would be able to sit and read. So they’re getting exposed to these stories and ideas in the language much earlier than they would have if they were having to wait to read themselves, and much faster than I can read to them at bedtime.
And for older struggling readers it’s also good to have the audiobook option, so they don’t get limited to the content in books for younger kids.
Right, and I think it’s great to think about the different ways that we can read. Listening is another wonderful way to be able to access the story. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t read it, it just means they’ve had a different access point. There are definitely students who can use that as a way to access the same literature their friends are reading. And it’s also enjoyable. I love listening to audiobooks, because I love getting told stories. And it’s such a beautiful way to make that happen when we grow up being read to by parents and other adults in our lives. It’s great to continue that with professional narrators, and very fun to bring stories to life. And audiobooks can be a fun way to share books with your family, since you get to listen to a story together. If you have a long car ride, instead of using screens to keep everyone entertained, you can listen and then have that great story to talk about.
Does that influence your decision when you’re judging audiobooks for kids? Are you looking for books that appeal to generations beyond the one the book is marketed towards?
Definitely. Children and family listening is one category we think about, whether everybody in the family would enjoy this together. And for classroom use, too.
Let’s talk about your first pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2021: We Are Still Here by Traci Sorell.
This one is for children as young as four years of age. It is one that I would recommend listening to while also looking at the picture book, because it has beautiful, bright illustrations and the words and pictures are paired very well together. It’s definitely striking to hear on audio because you have this full cast of narrators who are reading the story. They are from Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, and Chickasaw backgrounds, so you get to hear the voices of the people the stories are about too.
You said it’s for children as young as four, but although it’s a picture book the history topics would definitely be interesting for older readers.
Certainly, I have a friend who teaches middle school who uses this for discussions in the classroom. The way the story is structured, it’s about a classroom of students preparing for presentations on Indigenous People’s Day. You’re getting to listen to a young person narrating each story. Each of those presentations works well as a jumping off point for further learning. There’s a lot of further information in the back of the book, which is also narrated, if you want to know a little bit more about each of the topics. I think it would work very well in the classroom to say to students “why don’t you look further into this topic – assimilation or the Indian Child Welfare Act or tribal activism – and see what else you can learn about this”? And I think there’s definitely something about hearing it aloud from their young voices. After each of the presentations, they say together “we are still here”. It really reinforces that fact that’s so important for everybody to know, that all the Native Nations they’ve heard about – that maybe in school they’ve only heard about in the past tense – are still here. This book is working to fill in the gap between U.S. treaty-making and today, so kids get a sense of what that trajectory has been like for different Native Nations and the ways they have resisted the assimilation, the ways they’ve worked towards maintaining sovereignty. These are big concepts, and if you’re reading it with somebody who’s four years old you probably wouldn’t go in depth on all of those. But as kids get older, you could revisit it and delve further into all of those topics.
Let’s move on to your next pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2021: Stuntboy, in the Meantime, which is for listeners or readers age seven and up.
Stuntboy is a very dynamic and fun audiobook, and Jason Reynolds is a celebrated children’s author, for good reason. He has done it again, written a story that’s very good at meeting kids where they are. And it’s an illustrated chapter book which is just coming out, I’m very excited to read it in print, and so are my kids! I’d say for reluctant readers or for kids who haven’t seen themselves in children’s literature before, or for kids who are looking for a fun story, this is great. And the audiobook is a whole other amazing experience, narrated by a full cast. Guy Lockard is the main narrator telling the story and then there are other voices that jump in. Guy is the author’s childhood friend who has worked on narrating some of his audiobooks in the past. I think that helps him have such a good voice for bringing these stories to life, because they have those shared childhood experiences. And he’s just got an incredible amount of energy to bring this story to life, it definitely sounds like he is having a great time. So much care was put into how they produced it. There are parts where he is acting very goofy and introducing each chapter with musical fanfare and calling out instruments or fart noises to introduce the chapters. There are great music and sound effects throughout, but also just a lot of joy.
It’s about this kid, Portico Reeves, narrated by Nile Bullock, who is living in an apartment building that he loves, and he’s got his best friend there. He’s noticed his parents have started arguing a lot and he’s getting a sense of this brewing trouble. His friend suggests that they come up with superhero alter egos. So he becomes “Stuntboy”, and works to help distract his parents from the fights, but also to protect his friend Zola from a bully, and protect the other people in the apartment building. It’s very goofy, but it also touches on serious topics like anxiety and worries about your parents separating, and bullying. It’s both written and read in a way that is so much fun to listen to. We listened as a family and we were all laughing out loud the whole time. It’s one that I would say listening to it and reading it make separate, both excellent, reading experiences.
Jason Reynolds is a very prolific children’s author and you get the feeling from his stories that he’s somehow quite connected with his childhood.
I agree, and I like that. He’s talked about writing books for all children, including the kids who sometimes get left behind. He’s the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, doing outreach to children all across the country with schools and also kids who are in institutions and incarcerated.
Reynolds has also written one of the stories in your next pick of this year’s best audiobooks for kids: Black Boy Joy, which is edited by Kwame Mbalia. Can you talk a bit about this book?
This is another great book for middle grade readers at eight years old and up. It would appeal to young teenagers too. It’s a collection of stories from Black male and non-binary authors that has two narrators. One is Taj Lahey, who narrates just one story, Kwame Mbalia’s story. You hear a part of it at the beginning, a part in the middle and a part at the end, and it works to tie the collection together. Amir Abdullah narrates the rest of the audiobook, all these different stories, and it’s a great collection. All of the stories touch on joy in the lives of Black kids, and in Black boys in particular. We have a story about an epic intergalactic race in space, and a story about solving puzzles in a giant mansion, and also stories about grief and loss and how we find joy in those difficult times. It covers a whole range of genres and ideas all centred around joy.
Would you say that Mbalia wanted to highlight the happy and fulfilled daily lives of Black boys, to help redirect an often stereotypical portrayal in the media?
Yes, I revisited it a bit before our talk. In a story set during the pandemic a kid who breaks his wrist still finds joy in delivering food to people on a skateboard. It was such a sweet story to listen to again and be reminded of this whole range of experiences that kids have. They’re all very human stories, and very approachable for kids. But they definitely highlight that there are so many different ways to be in the world.
It’s great to have stories that encourage children to pursue their own natural interests and be their authentic selves, highlighting that Black masculinity can be a lot of different things.
Exactly. There are a couple of stories about kids coming out, and that, too, is a great mirror. It sends a good message to kids to look for ways to find acceptance and be loved for who they are. And I think a fun part about any collection like this where you have 17 stories from different authors, is to have jumping off points for finding more stories if you really liked one of them. When we listened, my kids really loved B. B. Alston’s fun and a little bit magical story so we then read his novel Amari and the Night Brothers as well. It’s a great way for kids to get a taste of all these different authors.
This book also has great diversity of form. Most are short stories but one is a poem and Jerry Craft has done a graphic story or comic.
Yes, when we listened to it we didn’t get the impact of the illustrations in that case, but it also sort of works as a poem.
I’ve noticed some graphic novels doing very well as audiobooks, even winning audiobook prizes, which is interesting.
Certainly, Jerry Craft and Varian Johnson are two that I know of whose graphic novels have turned into excellent audiobooks. When they’re done with care, you have full cast productions a lot of the times. So instead of seeing the different people on the page, you get to hear those voices. They’ll use sound effects to create the scenery that you would see in the book, and they might fill in some of the gaps that aren’t translated directly into words so you’re not missing out on key details that you would see on the page.
Let’s talk about your next pick of best audiobooks of 2021, which is for teens: Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko.
Redemptor is the sequel to Raybearer, a title from last year that also was on our best audiobooks list. It’s read by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, who does an excellent job. The story picks right up where the first one left off, and you get to go on this amazing adventure. She is an impressive narrator. When you’re reading a fantasy story like this one, you might have all these different words that you’re not familiar with. It’s a lot of work for narrators to know how to pronounce all of them. And how do you make it all sound natural when introducing a reader to this world? She handles it really well and she also sings in this audiobook, which is a delight. There are parts of it where there are songs that the people around the main characters are singing about the main characters, and all these songs are part of the culture. With both Raybearer and this one, it’s just such a joy to get to hear those.
I really like Ifueko’s work, which I discovered earlier this year in an interview with children’s author Efua Traoré about West African fantasy books for teens. I loved the rhythm and use of language in Raybearer, so I’m glad to hear that the narrator brings those out in the audiobook version.
It’s beautiful. Redemptor definitely moves the story along and a lot has happened to Tarisai, the protagonist. In this one she’s really haunted by what her empire has done in the past and is trying to right those wrongs, but also learns that you can’t take too much on alone. It is a great message for teens to hear, that it’s important to ask for help when you need it, remembering that you’re human. I think it was a very powerful listening experience. If I were reading it on the page, I don’t know that I would have that background knowledge to make sense of all of the words that I would see on the page, but hearing it and hearing it in Joniece Abbot-Pratt’s voice, it just really adds a lot to the experience.
Let’s move on to your final pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2021, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
This audiobook is read by Isabella Star LaBlanc, who has not narrated a lot of audiobooks before. I think this was her first, and it was an impressive first. This book is probably for a little bit older of a young adult audience, 14 and up, just based on the intensity of the story. It’s a great combination of a young adult thriller and a love story. There’s a lot about understanding yourself and your family as well. It’s an engrossing story, and there’s something powerful about hearing that authentic narration where you’re getting a sense of any unfamiliar language that you might come across, but also just the cadence, and all those different characters coming to life through the narration. It’s really a powerful listening experience.
The author is a Native American and I read that her own father is a traditional firekeeper in the tribal community. Can you talk a bit more about the story?
It’s a story of a community, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians on reservation in Michigan. The story takes place on and off the reservation. The main character, whose name is Daunis, has grown up between those two cultures. She gets caught up in an investigation into a new street drug that has very devastatingly been impacting their communities. The FBI recruits her to try to find out where it might be coming from, because it might have something to do with Indigenous practices, they’re wondering if there’s a certain material that is getting used in this drug to make it more dangerous. So there’s this very serious examination of the way that those kinds of drugs can impact and devastate communities. And it’s also the story of Daunis trying to discover her own path within this community and her place within it. She’s getting pulled in two different directions because the FBI is coming at her with one perspective, and then she also has her community which she’s trying to protect from outside influences. There are a lot of twists to the story and it’s a very impressive debut. It’s one that I gifted a couple people after I read it, knowing that it would make a great listen even for adult listeners who enjoy reading young adult fiction.
Of whom there are many!
There are, exactly. I think hearing Isabella narrate you get to know all of these characters even better, because you hear them through her voice. It makes for such a good audiobook and it definitely was a very impressive debut for both of them, for the author and for the narrator.
I read the beginning of this book, which has a section where the protagonist talks about how difficult it is when being Native means different things depending on who’s asking and why, and when your own identity gets defined by other people. I guess this theme is central to the story?
Yes, indeed, that certainly is a part of her journey throughout the audiobook. There are parts where she’s not feeling at home either on or off the reservation, and then there is the romance which also pulls her in different directions. But there’s so much love from within her community that really makes it a beautiful audiobook to listen to.
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Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion about what 2021 was like in terms of audiobooks for kids and teens?
It was a year with so many brilliant audiobooks out there, and so many ways to enjoy literature through audio. I know that it was a difficult year for many as well, with many students quarantining at home from school, or doing remote school, and audiobooks have been an excellent way for young listeners to feel connected to others. For any of your readers who want to try an audiobook who maybe haven’t before, take a look at the full list of all the different categories. There are so many excellent audiobooks, it makes a lot of sense to look for something that would appeal to you as listener or to your kids and give it a try and see, because these are a lot of the best from the whole year! And it can be surprising. Something like Stuntboy, which is really different from anything I’ve heard before, might be an exciting way to get a start with audiobooks and help listeners be introduced to that as a way to read and a way to find joy in literature.
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