Imagine yourself listening to a thrilling adventure story, murmured into your ear by a skilled reader with a voice that's silky smooth, or gruff and commanding, or so spooky that sends shivers down your spine. Campfire yarns, family stories, radio plays — listening to a captivating tale spun by a talented storyteller is a rare pleasure.
The audiobooks you'll find at your library add dimension to the reading experience — and have unexpected benefits for young readers. Research shows that kids who regularly listen to audiobooks have improved comprehension, greater reading speed and accuracy, better vocabulary and pronunciation, and increased motivation.
And audiobooks are dynamite for silencing backseat bickering. Who can fuss when they need to hear what's going to happen next?
Reading aloud to children is the single best thing you can do to get them ready to read. But finding time to do it as often as we'd like can be hard. Playing an audiobook in the car or during playtime is a fun way to experience goofy Dr. Seuss books like "Horton Hears a Who," read by Dustin Hoffman, or the gentle "Little Bear" stories by Else Holmelund Minarik, read by Sigourney Weaver.
Kids who are just learning to read usually practice on short, formulaic books starring familiar characters. But most children are perfectly able to comprehend longer, more complicated stories at this stage. Listening develops their ability to make connections and think critically: when they're ready to tackle bigger books they'll be primed and ready.
My family listened to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books when our boys were five and seven years old. I had forgotten how tense life was for the Ingalls family! Reader Cherry Jones took us through malaria, floods, and plagues of grasshoppers with her dry but warm voice.
A talented narrator can accurately reproduce accents, slang, and bits of other languages. This gives kids a taste of a culture that is not their own or a chance to hear people who sound like people they know. The characters in "The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case" speak with a rolling Botswanan accent, delivered with charming energy by British actress Adjoa Andoh. And reader Sisi Aisha Johnson captures the forthright tone of city kids Delphine, Vonetta and Fern as well as their old-fashioned Alabama grandmother in Rita Williams-Garcia's "One Crazy Summer."
Classics on audio
Many parents want to share classic books such as "Treasure Island" or "Peter Pan" with their kids. However, older books are often full of obsolete or obscure language - words like "fo'c's'le" or "coracle" will trip even an accomplished reader's tongue. Why not let a professional take over? Actor Alfred Molina handles the nautical terminology of "Treasure Island" without missing a beat, and is grandly growly impersonating Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate crew.
Fans of Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" books will enjoy "D'Aulaire's Greek Myths" — the audio version is read by Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Kathleen Turner, and Matthew Broderick, who tackle those tricky Greek names with ease.
Listening to audiobooks as a family can be a profound experience. R. J. Palacio's "Wonder," about a boy born with physical differences, can prompt important conversations about kindness and courage when shared.
National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson narrates her verse memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming." Her expressive voice conveys every smile, joke, and sorrow. Parents can add their own recollections of the years she describes as they listen.
Audiobooks are available on CD; as downloadable audio files that can be played on any mobile device or computer; paired with physical copies of some picture books; and as Playaways — small portable audio players that are used with headphones. Ask about these options at your library or bookstore.
Here are a few more great audiobooks for kids and teens:
"The Bad Beginning" (A Series of Unfortunate Events Book One) by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry. Ages 9-14. Curry tears up the place impersonating nefarious baddies and innocent children alike.
"The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place," by Julie Berry, read by Jayne Entwistle. Ages 11 and up. Seven boarding school girls — who may or may not have poisoned their headmistress — come to delicious life in this award-winning audio production.
--"Better Nate than Ever," by Tim Federle, read by the author. Ages 11 to 14. Nate does what every theater-mad boy dreams of doing: runs away from home to try out for "E.T.: The Musical." Tim Federle received audiobook awards for his sweet and funny reading of this book and its sequel, "Five, Six, Seven, Nate!"
"Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America's First Black Paratroopers" by Tanya Lee Stone. Ages 12 and up. Narrator JD Jackson's strong voice is a perfect match for this story of courage and injustice.
"Zombie Baseball Beatdown," by Paolo Bacigalupi, read by Sunil Malhotra. Ages 10 to 14. If Rabi thinks it's tough being the only kid on the team whose mom shows up in a sari, wait until the livestock start attacking. Fast-paced and wacky, but unexpectedly thought provoking, as Rabi and his friends go up against factory farming and immigration enforcement.
"The True Meaning of Smekday," by Adam Rex, read by Bahni Turpin. Ages 9-14. If you've seen the movie "Home," you owe it to your family to experience the book that movie was based on. Original and unexpected, full of heart and humor.
Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children's and teen literature in various national publications and online at unadulterated.us.