Ears on the Odyssey

Listening Counts

Baby with messy face wears headphone

CC Quinn Dombrowski

Every year, our library offers a Summer Reading Program for kids. Participants are given prizes for logging the number of books that they’ve read, and the competition to amass more and more prizes can be quite fierce. I honestly will never understand the irresistible appeal of collecting so many plastic pencil toppers and bouncy balls!

When I first started working at the library, audiobooks weren’t nearly as popular as they are now, and many questioned whether listening really counted. As an avid listener, it broke my heart when I heard parents or even teachers tell the kids that only “real reading” would win a prize. We’ve come a long way in the past few years, but there’s still a sense that listening is cheating, that it’s easier, more passive, and even somewhat shameful.

I say…pshaw! Let’s stop shaming people for the way that they access books, whether it’s by reading paper books, ebooks, braille books, or audiobooks. Instead, let’s embrace diversity and celebrate all the ways that we can engage with books.

In fact, rather than leading to a diminished experience, listening can open up new and exciting ways of engaging with books. Many readers feel that reading with their ears is more intimate, suspenseful, and memorable than reading with their eyes. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Narrators. It’s true that a bad narrator can sour your listening experience, but narrators have really been stepping up their game, and great narrators are easy to find. A skilled narrator may bring authentic accents, perfectly modulated pacing, comedic timing, or all of the above. Check out Allan Corduner’s reading of Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, which won the Odyssey Award in 2017. Corduner is an exemplary narrator, capable of communicating the most subtle nuances in language and employing a staggering number of accents with effortless skill (note how easily he switches from Russian to German to Yiddish and more). This book, which focuses so much on the power of language to transform, is really meant to be heard.
  • Sound effects, music, and more. Not all audiobooks employ sound effects and/or music, but they can really raise the bar and make for a truly multi-faceted listening experience. Take Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo, which won an Odyssey Honor Award in 2016. This audio is enhanced by ethereal harmonica music, which literally and thematically connects the stories in book. Although the book itself is marvelous, it is so exciting to put the audio into a young listener’s hands, since you know that they’ll soon be embarking on an unforgettable audio adventure!
  • Some stories are meant to be heard. We know that storytellers can be magical, and we treasure memories of people telling bedtime stories, sharing ghost stories around the campfire, and reading to us when we were young. These stories are special because of the connection that we feel with the storyteller, and also because they are meant to be performed. The best audiobooks are exactly the same, drawing us in with that special something that comes alive when the book is performed. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life, read by Jayne Entwistle, is just such a book. In this book, which won the Odyssey Award in 2016, Entwistle performs a diverse array of characters, capturing the tension and worry as well as the warmth and love which run throughout this story. Entwistle has a way of bringing bittersweet and sometimes agonizing emotions right to the surface, bringing forth tears and laughter in equal measure.

Listening is just one way that readers, whether reading with their eyes or their ears, can engage with books. Listening is different than reading and should not be expected to be the same. Rather than encouraging a contest between listening and reading, we should celebrate the fact that we have so many ways to put great stories into the hands of young readers.

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