Ears on the Odyssey

Narrator Spotlight: Dion Graham

Here’s a fun game—ask any avid audiobook listener for the name of their favorite audiobook, narrated by Dion Graham. Go ahead, try it! I guarantee that you will see delight—“Ah, Dion Graham, that voice!” And then, the consternation begins—“But I can’t choose just one. Of course it’s Trombone Shorty, no, what about Dear Martin? Have you heard X? What about H.O.R.S.E? You know, I need to go back and listen again…I’ll get back to you!” This is a very fun game, and it’s all good, because the phenomenally talented Dion Graham is worth listening to every day, and if your friend goes into a deep dive of his works, all the better.

Dion Graham is the recipient of the audiobook publishing world’s highest honors—the 2015 Odyssey Award for H.O.R.S.E, multiple Odyssey Honor Awards, multiple Audie Awards, and many, many AudioFile Earphones Awards. Simply put, Dion Graham is a star.

It’s hard to encapsulate Dion Graham’s many talents, but in some ways, it comes down to range. He seems equally comfortable moving from the grittiest adult titles (please check out The Force, Eviction, We Cast a Shadow, American War, and Little Family, if you haven’t already!) to the most uplifting children’s titles. His voice can be liquid and smooth, but also sharp and jarring. His command of accents is staggering, allowing him to effectively channel African dialects and voices from the American South. More than anything, however, Dion Graham is authentic. He wholeheartedly embraces every project, honoring the author’s words and the characters’ experiences. He narrates from the heart, and you can tell.

It has been a true pleasure to spend time listening to and reviewing some of Dion’s latest projects. 2020 wasn’t a great year, but listening to his work has made it a little bit better. If you’re looking for your next great listen, we recommend any of these wonderful audios, all narrated by Dion Graham. Many thanks go out to HarperAudio, Listening Library, Live Oak Media, Dreamscape Media, and Macmillan Audio for providing review copies of these books. Happy listening!

Alice’s Farm: A Rabbit’s Tale, by Maryrose Wood, narrated by Dion Graham. 11 hours, 8 minutes. Macmillan Audio, 2020.

Alice’s Farm by Maryrose Wood

A new audio classic is born on Alice’s Farm: A Rabbit’s Tale. When ten-year-old Carl Harvey and his family move from Brooklyn to Prune Street Farm in pursuit of their hipster farm fantasy there are many challenges to face, from greedy developers to financial woes, but none is more pressing than simply figuring out how to farm. Luckily for the Harveys, they have some pint-sized allies. Alice the rabbit, her brother Thistle, and their family, worried that their farmyard home will fall prey to the developer’s bulldozer, rally the animals of the fields and forest in an impressive effort to help sow seeds and get things growing. Lovable and whip-smart Alice forges unlikely partnerships with the likes of Foxy (the Harveys’ stuffy but sweet shiba inu) Doggo (a local fox – don’t get them confused!), and even more dangerous denizens of the neighborhood, as the Harveys and their neighbors wonder at their farm’s unexpected growth spurt. But will it be enough? Dion Graham imbues the tale with a sense of timelessness and grand storytelling in his narration that is both effortlessly listenable and riveting. Maryrose Wood’s signature brand of humor shines through with Graham’s excellent comedic timing and endearing and often hilarious character voices, ranging from the sweet and soft spoken Alice, to the endearingly snooty Foxy, to the menacing weasel Worm. An engaging interview between Wood and Graham at the end of the title discusses the story’s deeper themes. Strongly recommended for any young audio aficionados, especially fans of stories like Charlotte’s Web.

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford, narrated by Dion Graham. 37 minutes. Dreamscape Media, 2020.

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

A lyrical retelling of the story of Henry Box Brown, an enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom.  A collection of 6 line poems told in the first person, Graham’s narration captures Brown’s heartbreak and heroism. Graham embodies Brown’s inner emotional turmoil as well the harrowing toll that enslavement has on others and society as a whole. Listeners feel as Brown feels: momentary joy, focused desperation, and ceaseless pain. Graham also reads a detailed timeline and the authors’ note at the end providing further historical context to the story. Much to be learned and felt in this beautifully performed audio.

Dear Justyce, by Nic Stone, narrated by Dion Graham and Nic Stone. 4 hours, 45 minutes. Listening Library, 2020.

Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

Dear Justyce, the much-anticipated sequel to Nic Stone’s first book, Dear Martin, tells the story of 16-year-old Quan, who, unlike his friend Justyce, doesn’t seem to have a bright future ahead of him. Wrongly incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, Quan writes to Justyce, revealing his all-too-familiar story—poverty, trauma, abuse, and a criminal justice system that judges him by the color of his skin. In part, this is Quan’s story, but it is also the story of too many young men of color, caught in a system that offers only cruelty and discrimination. Simply put, Graham’s narration of Dear Justyce is a triumph. His characterizations are outstanding, reflecting the breadth and diversity of the many people who make up Quan’s community and shape his life—his beleaguered and often unkind mother, thoughtful Doc, and Justyce himself, who understands Quan’s situation all too well. Quan himself is complex and endearing, full of humor, tenderness, and hurt. This is an important and affecting book, made all the more powerful by Graham’s nuanced and thoughtful delivery. Not to be missed. 

Leaving Lymon, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, narrated by Dion Graham. 4 hours, 19 minutes. Dreamscape Media, 2020.

Leaving Lymon Lesa Cline-Ransome

Listeners may know Lymon as Langston’s bully in Leaving Langston. However, once you’ve read Lymon’s story in this companion novel, Leaving Lymon, you will find so much more depth to Lymon than a mere bully. The novel begins in 1940’s Mississippi where Lymon is living with his grandparents as his father serves time on Parchman Farm. Lymon’s life is happy and secure as he learns how to play guitar from his Grandpops and lives a simple but love-filled life. Unfortunately, that all ends too soon for Lymon when his Grandpops passes away and he and his Ma are forced to move to Milwaukee to be closer to family. In Milwaukee, Lymon is grieving the loss of his Grandpops and his Ma is continually getting sicker. At what listeners think is Lymon’s lowest point, he is forced to go live with his absentee mother in Chicago in the middle of the night after his Ma gets too sick to continue to care for him. However, Chicago holds even more trials and tribulations for Lymon and tests Lymon’s limits for resiliency in the face of adversity.

Ultimately this novel, though a somber one, focuses on one young boy’s search for family–and especially for his father. Along with that Lymon is always searching for belonging and identity in every new experience. Dion Graham’s performance truly brings the vast cast of characters in this novel to life. Early on in the production you get a treat as you hear Graham’s rich, buttery voice sing as Grandpops. We hear laughs and smiles in Lymon’s voice change to trembles of sadness as his Grandpops gets sicker and ultimately passes away. As Lymon moves away to Milwaukee and then Chicago, we hear how his narrative voice becomes more and more somber the more dire the circumstances get. Lymon’s voice gets so flat at points, listeners may worry that there’s no hope for him. Graham’s narration of Lymon’s mom’s husband, Robert, is truly terrifying. This is greatly appreciated by this listener to help understand the fear that this young boy faces at the hands of this terrible man. As one could guess, there is hope at the end of this story, and Graham gradually brings back the joy to Lymon’s voice. By the end of this short novel, Lymon’s character has grown immensely as has Graham’s voicing of Lymon–he will never be back to that young boy we met in Mississippi, but the young man he has become is evident in the tone and underlying fortitude we hear in Graham’s voicing at the end of the novel.

Though a tough read, young listeners may identify with Lymon’s strength in the face of so much suffering and heartbreak. An additional author’s note at the end of the production, sheds light on the motivation for telling Lymon’s story as well as additional information about Parchman Farm, that may inspire further research for listeners (it did for this listener!). Highly recommended for those who like realistic fiction as well as those that ultimately enjoy character redemption stories. 

Overground Railroad, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, narrated by Shayna Small and Dion Graham. 14 minutes. Live Oak Media, 2020.

Overground Railroad Lesa Cline-Ransome

A family’s journey for a better life becomes a fully realized audio experience. Narrators Shayna Small portrays with excitement and worry Ruth Ellen, a young black girl whose family is leaving the South via train during the Great Migration. Dion Graham’s voice bellows as the conductor calling out stops along the way. Listeners are transported the moment the audio opens with train sounds, twangy banjo, and bluesy humming/singing. Graham reads along with Small  Frederick Douglass’s famous autobiography. This perfectly highlights the idea that Ruth Ellen is mirroring Douglass’s escape to freedom. The grounded characters and many background sounds trade-off for the spotlight making for a balanced production. This audio is all-around excellently interpreted and executed. It is full of smart choices that create an authentic setting and emotional tone – another must-listen from Live Oak media.

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