Ears on the Odyssey

Audio Review: The Pleasure of Picture Books

Let’s start with a confession. Given the choice between listening to an epic, fifteen-hour teen audio or an itty bitty five-minute picture book, I will choose the fifteen-hour book every time. I am a huge listener and auditory learner, but I’m not particularly visually oriented. So, when I was faced with evaluating picture book audiobooks during my time on the Odyssey Award committee, I was more than a little nervous. Once I started working with picture books, however, I realized that even though picture books look very different from text-only novels, many of the same evaluation criteria still apply. In the end, both are still audiobooks and must be evaluated by those same standards.

Of course, some differences inevitably come into play when evaluating readalongs, or audiobooks that are accompanied by the picture book. Odyssey Award committee members aren’t asked to judge the picture book, but must consider how the two work in tandem. Are all of the words on the page read aloud? If so, does the delivery make sense? Is enough time allotted so that young readers can take in the images on the page? Alternately, is there too much time between pages? Is a page-turn signal option offered? If so, are the page-turn signals appropriate for the text? Is music incorporated into audio? If so, does it blend appropriately with the words and pictures? Above all, as with all audiobooks, however, we must ask if the audio enhances the text, making it into a more meaningful listening experience.

It is extremely difficult to produce an excellent picture book audiobook. Many of these audiobooks incorporate music, sound effects, and multiple voices, all of which must work together with the words and illustrations from the original picture book. Standards are extremely high when it comes to picture books. The smallest mistake, whether a missed word or a change in volume or a mispronunciation, is unacceptable. These books are too short to have such errors, and as we all know, they are likely to be listened to again and again.

When a picture book audiobook truly comes together, however, it is a powerful force. These books are entertaining and educational, moving and empowering. Picture book audios reduce barriers for struggling readers, allowing them to access vocabulary and language that would otherwise have been unavailable. They offer young readers a multi-sensory experience that can have a lifelong impact.

We are seeing more and more remarkable picture book audiobooks. Here are a few that we’d like to share:


Friendshape, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, read by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Kate & Lily Weyant, Quinn A. Seaman, and Ryan Cassel. 7 minutes. Weston Woods Studios, 2017.

An energetic romp that bursts at the seams with color, movement, and music, Friendshape is not to be missed. A circle, a square, a rectangle, and a triangle join forces to show young readers what friendship is all about. Amy Krouse Rosenthal narrates the story with her young cohorts, real kids whose giggles and energy are utterly infectious. The children’s voices are sweet, but not cloyingly so, and their authenticity rings true. Jaunty, toe-tapping music runs throughout, moving the story forward, but tempting the listener to start again from the very beginning.  


I’m New Here, by Anne Sibley O’Brien, read by Frankie Corzo, Ariana Delawari, Ramon De Ocampo, Ruth Livier, and Ann Sibley O’Brien. 12 minutes. Live Oak Media, 2017.

Maria, Jin and Fatimah have just immigrated to their new American school. In this unfamiliar place, reading, writing, and making new friends is hard stuff, but with a little help, time and bravery they will find a new sense of self in their new home. This multicast production is tenderly narrated with a rich soundscape that helps listeners feel the characters’ struggle and growth. The pace is deliberately slow and serves as a nice balance to the many well layered background sounds of the playground and classroom. Every action in the illustrations  – the pen etching out words, a child drinking water, child kicking a soccer ball – is heard and gives the listener a sense of the characters’ distress and loneliness. Most impressively done are Jin’s elaborate dreams  where the soundtrack captures things like a rocket taking of or boy and cat kayaking on river. Included at the end is author’s note narrated by the author about her motivations for the book. All and all, this audio adds something new and interesting to touching story about children trying to find their way.


Preaching to the Chickens, by Jabari Asim, read by Kevin R. Free. 10 minutes. Recorded Books, 2017. Before he took center stage with powerful words and actions in the Civil Rights movement, John Lewis was a young boy moved to spread the word of God, even to the many chickens in his yard. With a companionable tone, narrator Kevin R. Free tells Lewis’ story, bringing in gentle accents and exclamations that blend seamlessly into a whole. Free’s narration brims over with light and warmth, mirroring the sunny watercolor illustrations. The hymn, Amazing Grace, is beautifully sung with an unadorned purity that perfectly reflects the thrust of the book. This is a complex book with difficult vocabulary, but it is much more accessible in audio format.

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