Ears on the Odyssey

Review: Hey Kiddo

“We all have our stories of how we came to be, ya know?” – Leslie shares with teenage Jarrett as he helps her move into her house (p. 230). 

It was a groundbreaking storytelling achievement when in 2018, Jarrett J. Krosoczka published his graphic memoir, Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost my Mother, Found my Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. He developed an entirely new drawing style to tell his story, sharing family artifacts and letters, childhood art, and even the pineapple-print wallpaper from his grandparents’ home, to tell this deeply personal story. He shed light on the impact of addiction and opened up much needed conversations. Hey, Kiddo was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, a 2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist, winner of a Harvey Award for Book of the Year, a 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction honoree, an American Society of Addiction Medicine Media Award, among many other honors. But Krosoczka was not done telling his story. This year he co-produced and co-directed, along with Scholastic’s Paul Gagne, a full-cast (as in up to 60 performers) audiobook adaptation of Hey, Kiddo that is truly an auditory masterpiece. If our goal is to seek out and spotlight productions that are innovative, demonstrating dazzling new heights for what is possible in this storytelling medium, then we have found the pinnacle of excellence. And others have taken notice, too. Hey, Kiddo has been named an Earphones Award Winner from Audiofile Magazine, named an Editor’s Choice from Booklist, and was listed as one of YALSA’s 2020 Top Ten Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults.

As you can learn from this Publisher’s Weekly interview, the seeds of this production were rooted in the staged readings that Krosoczka put together beginning with a Scholastic’s Readers’ Theater event at ALA (which coincidentally I had the opportunity to attend) to the live multi-media readings, which continue today. It’s no wonder that this production has a theatrical quality to it, channeling the nostalgic style of radio plays of yesterday with the modern sound design of immersive podcasts like The Truth and graphic novel audiobook adaptations like Nimona. Audiobook adaptations of graphic novels pose their own challenges to make the visual features come to life sonically. This production would not have been possible without Krosoczka helming it and ensuring its accuracy and authenticity. He wrote additional narration that was necessary to express the visuals and artifacts, as well as ensure clarity. Interestingly, we get more of the letters that Leslie and Richard wrote since they are obscured by illustrations in the book, but read in their entirety in the audiobook. It is grounded in a sense of time and place with the sights and sounds of Krosoczka’s childhood and adolescence in Worcester, Massachusetts, with careful attention to the regional accents, with many voices recorded at the Fontanez Recording Studio in Worcester! As Krosoczka pointed out in an audio interview with Mark Lynch, “what the audiobook can bring that the print book can’t is to sound like Worcester.” It is important to note the hard work of sound engineer, Steve Syarto, who was responsible for sound design, mixing, and mastering, who created the environmental effects that transport readers into the world of the story. Each scene is deliberately designed in ways that we might take for granted. But when we hear the car engines revving, kids playing, pencils drawing, cigarettes lighting, and corduroy pants zipping, we should recognize that including each sound is part of an artistic decision to ensure this story is told well. 

Music also plays a significant role in making this production extraordinary. The musical soundbed is instrumental to creating the mood of each chapter and transition into new ones. Songs are associated with specific characters, like “Pennies from Heaven” with his grandfather, and get repeated throughout the audiobook. This subtle choice helps underscore the emotional experiences of the characters. The music during Jarrett’s nightmares is particularly jarring and suspenseful, combined with monster voices, which is effectively used during the recurring dreams and again at the beginning of Chapter 7: Ghosts. It’s incredible how Scholastic was able to license popular music referenced throughout the book, which was arranged and performed by Scotty Huff. I dare you not to tear up when you hear the opening chords of “Disarm” by The Smashing Pumpkins playing as Jarrett heads to meet his father for the first time. (As a sidebar, in addition to the prospect of a future stage play, I’m here for a musical version of Hey, Kiddo. It worked for Fun Home…) 

The sound effects and music are masterfully integrated into the narration to create a unified whole. Many others have already pointed out the outstanding casting decisions for this production. Jenna Lamia, who voices Leslie, Jarrett’s mother, is transcendent in her ability to express Leslie’s struggles with addiction, amplifying her humanity and vulnerability. Jeanne Birdsall, the National Book Award winning author of the Penderwicks series, took on the role of his grandmother, Shirley for the stage readings, and charmed everyone with her sharp-witted performance to be cast for the audiobook. (Fun Fact: It was her daughter who got Jarrett to share his powerful TEDTalk.) Stage and TV actor, and renowned audiobook narrator, Richard Ferrone steals the show as his grandfather, Joe. Listen to this audiobook once before listening to the “About the Audiobook” track and credits list at the end of the audiobook. Then, listen to it again and it will be a completely different experience. As Krosoczka points out, the production takes his family through their family history. Just pause for a moment and consider the kinds of authentic performances we get as a result. Friends and family members are included in this production in ways that make it truly special. His comics teacher, Mark Lynch, plays himself, and various other childhood teachers return to play themselves. Krosoczka’s daughter Zoe plays young Jarrett while his best friend, Pat, is played by Pat’s son, Seamus. Later on, Pat plays himself – and even Pat’s mom voices herself. Krosoczka’s birth father, Richard Hennessy, voices himself, reliving the memories of his absence and their reunion with emotional depth and bravery. You can learn the full details of the casting choices at the end of the audiobook. The layers within this production are unending – and thankfully Krosoczka continues to share behind-the-scenes easter eggs and tidbits on social media. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to Hey, Kiddo. I’ve sat with the print graphic novel and listened along. I’ve listened to it while doing errands – and had to stop to sit at the bus stop because I needed to give it my full attention. At only 2 hours 50 minutes, it’s a production that you could listen to with loved ones, take in together, and discuss. It’s clear that accessibility was a vital concern in creating this production, ensuring that more readers can experience this story – and know they are not alone. It is an act of love to tell- and listen to this story. In his dedication, Jarrett says, “for every reader who recognizes this experience, I see you.”  And now we can say, I hear you, too. 

By the way, if you’re in Worcester, MA on Sunday, February 23, 2020, you can get tickets here for the live show of Hey, Kiddo: Live & Unabridged

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost my Mother, Found my Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, narrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Richard Ferrone, Jeanne Birdsall, Jenna Lania, and a full cast. 2 hours, 50 minutes. Scholastic Audio, 2019. 

Eti Berland is a Youth and Teen Services Librarian at Lincolnwood Public Library District in Lincolnwood, IL.  She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee and the 2015 Newbery Committee. She has been an ardent audio listener from a childhood making radio shows to her current obsession with podcasts and audiobooks. @90SecondNewbery

I want to share some amazing resources that I explored as I worked on this review. I highly recommend checking them out! 

Interview with Jarret and Zoe Krosoczka, Jeanne Birdsall and Jayden Meltzer

Behind the Mic with AudioFile Magazine Review 

Jarrett J. Krosoczka talks Hey, Kiddo on The Yarn

Jarrett J. Krosoczka Interview with Mark Lynch 

‘Hey, Kiddo’ Comes to Audio by Shannon Maughan (Publisher’s Weekly) 

Jarrett J. Krosoczka (The Children’s Book Podcast #469)

Recording Hey, Kiddo (Jarrett’s Blog) 

‘Hey, Kiddo’ Aims To Help Kids With Addicted Parents Feel Less Alone: Terry Gross interviews Jarrett Krosoczka on Fresh Air

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