Audiobooks » Best Audiobooks for Kids

The Best Audiobooks for Kids of 2023

recommended by Emily Connelly

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From the USA to Germany to China, audiobooks are growing in popularity, especially with young people. AudioFile's Emily Connelly talks us through her selection of the five best audiobooks for children and teens in 2023.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

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All your picks of the best audiobooks of 2023 were published in audio format at the same time as they came out in print. Aside from the steady growth of the audiobook market, are there any trends that you want to talk about before we get to the books themselves?

It used to be that very few of the books published would become audiobooks but we’re seeing more and more books do get turned into audiobooks. One thing, which is really fun, is that more graphic novels and graphic memoirs get adapted as audiobooks. It is difficult to do, but can be a really rewarding listening experience. A couple of the books on our list this year are like that. I think sometimes they wait to see if something will be successful, but it’s more normal now to publish audiobooks at the same time as the printed book. Picture books is one category where there still is a bit of a gap because most picture books don’t need to be audiobooks, they work really well by themselves, but sometimes they do adapt those.

It can be a good way to entertain children if you can’t read for them, to let them leaf through a book and listen to the audio version at the same time.

There are a couple of kinds now that are really great. We have some at the library where the player is attached to the book, so you can press play and the kid can sit and page through the book, or you can listen to it with them. You don’t have to find a CD player or the CD, or have it downloaded.

So you don’t need a device to scan a code to play it? And what is the audio quality like?

It’s just a tiny player that’s attached to the book. The audio quality is not the best, but it works, and through headphones it sounds great, actually. These are very popular at the library, they even have chapter book versions now. One of the companies that does it is called Vox Books, and Playway also has a version of it.

Let’s talk about your first pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2023, The Skull, a chapter book by Caldecott medal-winning illustrator Jon Klassen.

This book is a little spooky. Jon Klassen does excel at that sort of little bit creepy or a little bit dangerous story. This was a folktale that he came across in a book when he was visiting Alaska. There’s a nice afterword where he explains it a bit. He read this story about a girl meeting a skull and had an idea in his mind of how the story went. Then, when he asked the librarians if they could help him find it so he could read it again a year later, he realised he had imagined a totally different version of it than the one he’d originally read. So he rewrote it with his own version, which is what we get here. This is sort of how folktales go; people adapt them and pass the story on, whether intentionally or not.

In this version, there’s a little girl named Otilla who’s fleeing into the forest. She is running away from a scary voice and comes to a castle where she meets a skull and becomes friends with the skull. Then she discovers that a scary skeleton is coming and trying to get the skull, so she has to defend her new friend. There are definitely some scary things, and listening to it you can hear the wind and the names and the skeleton calling out.

And a clatter of bones, perhaps?

Yes, absolutely, there is a clatter of bones. The skull and Otilla share pears with each other from the little garden and have a nice time. And they have a happy ending so it’s a very sweet story, but there are some scarier parts. I’d say, depending on the kid, 6-10 is a really good age range for it.

The narrator, Fairuza Balk, has a great voice for this story. She can shift between the youthful voice of Otilla, the girl, and the more dignified voice of the skull, and then the scarier voices that we hear in the background. It makes for an almost cozy scary story, if that makes sense. Both my kids were very intrigued by the story and really enjoyed it, both looking at the picture book and listening to it.

Your next pick is Stuntboy, In-Between Time by award-winning author-illustrator team Jason Reynolds and Raúl the Third. This is the sequel to Stuntboy in the Meantime which was one of your audiobook picks for kids two years ago. Is it the same cast of narrators?

It’s the same narrators and cast. That first book won an Audie award and an Odyssey award, which are a big deal for the audiobook world. So we at AudioFile were very excited that all that team of narrators and the author got that recognition, because it really was a book that reset my idea of what you could do with a kid’s audiobook. It’s just so much fun to listen to.

In this story, we’re revisiting Stuntboy and his friends who live in an apartment building. There are parts of the story that are more serious, where Portico – Stuntboy – is realising that his parents are really separating. They have different apartments and the whole time in the audiobook Portico is supposed to be going from his mom’s apartment to his dad’s apartment. It’s his first time going to spend time in his dad’s new separate apartment, and he does everything except for going to that apartment. So there’s this serious part, where he’s got anxiety and worries about the changes in his family. But he’s also having a great time with his friends. They’ve found a secret empty apartment that they decide to decorate all over the walls themselves and make their own space, but of course it’s somebody else’s space. They have really fun adventures. The elevator is broken so they spend a lot of time going up and down the stairs with everybody else and seeing everybody else, seeing the bigger kids.

Part of what is so fun about Stuntboy is that he is a normal kid. He’s got anxiety, he’s got ADHD, he’s got struggles with his families, but he’s also making this really fun world for himself and making strong friendships.

Guy Lockard is the main narrator for the story, he’s the overarching voice explaining what’s going on, and there’s also a full cast. Guy’s energy for the story is huge. It must be so much fun seeing him narrate in the room because he’s all over the place, making you feel all this hyped-up energy and matching the music and the sound effects they have, and making you feel the more serious parts too. It’s a really funny and sweet audiobook.

The print book is highly illustrated, almost like a graphic novel in places. Would you say it’s for age 6-7 and up?

When kids are reading it on their own, it might be harder for them to read until they’re eight or nine years old. But that’s the great thing about audiobooks: you can start listening to things before you’d be able to sit and read that whole chapter book. Content-wise, this book has a lot of fun and a lot of energy that will carry younger readers along even if there are parts that are maybe confusing to them.

Let’s move on to your next pick of the best audiobooks for kids of 2023, Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy by Angie Thomas, who is best known for her acclaimed and bestselling books for Young Adults. This is her first foray into middle grade literature.

I think it was a great move. I love when authors can move around between different ages. With this audiobook, she’s moved not just into middle grade, but it’s also a really rich fantasy novel. It’s a good one for ages 8-12 and even older, for kids who are looking for a fantasy book that’s along the lines of Amari and the Night Brothers and Tristan Strong, some other favourites.

It’s narrated by one of my favourite narrators, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, who has so much energy for stories like this where we’ve got many different characters. We’ve got kids being kids but also discovering new responsibilities and going on magical missions, and encountering different creatures. There’s a lot going on in the book, but there’s also some history woven into it, and it makes for a really exciting audiobook. When we were listening to it with the kids I was hearing a lot of “Oh my gosh, what!” at the plot twists. It’s the first in a series and I know kids love a good series. It’s a book that’s a lot of fun to get in on now, and then wait for book two to see what happens next.

In the author’s note, Thomas writes about how as a child she fell in love with books and how she got a much-needed escape from daily life through fantastical adventures like the Narnia books. However, those magical worlds rarely included people who looked like her and none of them highlighted her culture, by which I guess she means Black culture of the American South, or African American culture more generally?

I’d say both Southern culture but also Black American culture, with stories that came over from Africa and have transformed here in America. And she puts her own twist on them. I think it’s so fun, like in Tristan Strong when you’ve got stories about Black kids who are learning from their ancestors and their past, but also making you feel very present and making it feel very alive for kids who are listening. It’s exciting to see and read so many different stories instead of always more of the same.

For any kid it’s fun to discover new – maybe new to them – stories. But also, for kids like Angie when she was young, it’s very affirming to get to read stories about kids like you, who are the heroes getting to go on these big adventures. Nic Blake, and Stuntboy who we just talked about, are both great examples of kids who are getting to be the hero in their story, and that’s so much fun to read.

Your next pick of the best audiobooks of 2023 is a young adult novel, Ander & Santi Were Here by Jonny Garza Villa. Can you tell me about it?

This audiobook is definitely for older teen readers. It’s narrated by Avi Roque. Both the author and narrator are non-binary. It was the first of Jonny’s books that I’ve read. I’ve heard Avi before, but I think in this one they really embodied so much of the characters and made it such an exciting and heartfelt audiobook, I really was so moved listening to it.

It’s a queer love story set in San Antonio, Texas. The main character, Ander, is taking a gap year before going to college and working at home in the taqueria owned by his family, and they’re also helping out with a mural painting project in their community. Then a new taqueria employee comes along, Santi, and they strike up a friendship and then something more.

It’s a really beautiful love story with some tragic elements in it, too, because you learn that Santi is undocumented. In San Antonio they have a lot of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents who have a heavy presence there and come to the taqueria often. You learn that other people in the community are trying to protect and hide people who are undocumented and help support each other. Ander fights for Santi, so it’s a love story but it’s also taking a closer look at that reality that so many kids, unfortunately, do face here. Maybe your parents or maybe you yourself made the choice to come to the United States for any number of different reasons. The way our system is set up, it’s unfair to those kids and their families. So this story tackles some really difficult subjects but in a way where you still see so much hope and community and belonging that they find together.

It’s a really moving story, and it was beautiful getting to listen to it with Avi Roque, the narrator, moving between Spanish and English in the story, and making each of these characters feel very real to you as you’re listening.

But it’s an English language novel, not a bilingual story?

It’s an English language book, but there is a fair amount of Spanish in it as well, with different characters speaking to each other. That is written in a thoughtful way, so you can usually follow along with what people are saying to each other. You get all that emotion in the narration, which really helps you understand what’s going on and what people are saying even if you don’t know exactly what the words translate to.

Your final pick of the best audiobooks of 2023 is another young adult novel, Warrior Girl Unearthed by Angeline Boulley, which made our list of the best books for teens of 2023. It’s a stand-alone follow-up to the prize-winning Firekeeper’s Daughter, which you picked as one of the best audiobooks for teens a couple of years ago. Is it the same narrator?

It’s the same narrator and listening to this one it felt like she became this other character. This book is also set on Sugar Island, ten years after Firekeeper’s Daughter. The main character from that story is this main character’s aunt, so she’s still there as part of the story and it’s nice getting to see how she fits in as Aunt Daunis.

This main character is Perry Firekeeper-Birch, who is 16 and Black and Ojibwe. I really liked how she was such a strong-willed character. And I liked seeing how she was somebody who didn’t really care about school, but cared about the things that were important to her. The idea of repatriating their ancestors and their belongings became really important to her and that was a beautiful thing to see. It was reminding me of stories you hear about kids who, for example, don’t like reading at all until they find something that actually they relate to. Perry Firekeeper-Birch is considered not a great student, but she is the best of her friends at speaking their language and knows so much about the folklore and history and so many different aspects of their culture. She is definitely somebody who will be carrying that forward and fighting for their community.

I was so happy to get to read this one. It was definitely the same mix of a coming of age story, but also a lot of adventure and some heavier storylines, for sure. She’s such a strong character, it was great getting to spend time with her.

It’s a kind of thriller as well. There are Indigenous women being abducted and murdered at a horrific rate, and there’s a ticking clock for the main character’s safety.

She is such a fighter. And there were parts of it that took me by surprise, some good plot twists. I appreciate reading Young Adult literature for so many reasons, but sometimes it’s nice to remember that they usually figure things out in a good way by the end, as opposed to some adult thrillers where you are left feeling a little bit bereft.

It was great hearing the narrator narrating in Ojibwe, and getting to hear the language out loud. Again, one of the great things about audiobooks is that not only are they translating all these emotions on the page for you, but you’re also sometimes getting to hear different languages than the ones you speak. You get to hear them come alive in the narrator’s voice and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

What are you looking forward to in audiobooks for kids and young adults in 2024?

So many more great audiobooks, I’m sure, will be coming out. I’m excited to hear more adaptations of graphic novels and illustrated books coming to audio. One of the audiobooks we didn’t talk about today is Sunshine by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, which is a graphic memoir for Young Adults that he also released as an audiobook. It’s about his experience going to a camp for terminally ill children and seriously ill children in Maine, and the week he spent as a counsellor at that camp and the impact it had on his life. He also wrote Hey, Kiddo, a memoir.

That one won both the Odyssey Award and Audie Awards’ Best Audiobook for Young Adults.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka obviously has a good grasp of how to turn all of his illustrations into audio. We have a great interview with him that I’d recommend listening to on our podcast, where he talks about the process and how you go about turning something that’s so visual into an audio experience. Sunshine won in a new category for us: audio originals, which either originally came out in audio or are highly adapted audio works. It is another example of a great adaptation where so much thought and care goes into narrating each of the different characters and all the sounds you hear, to help you understand what’s happening in each picture. So as we learn more about how to turn visual media into audio, I’m excited to see more of those coming out, I think it will be really fun.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

January 19, 2024

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Emily Connelly

Emily Connelly

Emily Connelly is Assistant Editor at AudioFile magazine and works in her local public library in Maine.