Listening to Books, January 2013

Over at Booklist's Audiobooker blog, I came across a great roundup of lists of best audiobooks of the year. In the Guardian I see that there's a new collection of Ian Fleming's first seven James Bond novels. Wouldn't that be cool to listen to in the car?

Right now J. (age 13) likes the audio version of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, a highly praised middle-grade fantasy from 2003. (I chose it from The Librariest's Top 20 Children's Audiobooks.) But while I appreciate Lynn Redgrave's narration and accents, by turns tony and sinister, sometimes I think that if I hear the word "book" again I may scream. Books, the love of books, book binding, book collecting, book thievery, etc., all figure into the story. Bookbookbookbookbook. Anyway, the plot is about to pick up, so perhaps that will distract me.

A favorite of ours last year was The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, written by Christopher Paul Curtis and read by LeVar Burton. Funny, sad, and thought-provoking, this autobiographical middle-grade novel details an African American family's road trip from Michigan to Alabama during a troubled time in our country's history. The Watsons was a Newbery Honor book back in 1996.


Inkheart, written by Cornelia Caroline Funke and translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Read by Lynn Redgrave
Random House/Listening Library, 2003
(library copy)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Read by LeVar Burton
Listening Library, 2003
(library copy) 

Our Life in Books, 11.29.10

In the car

An unabridged audiobook of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (HarperChildren's Audio, 2005). Monty Python's Eric Idle is the narrator. It had been a long time since I read this one, but I remember Charlie's yearning as he breathed in the delicious chocolate aroma on the way to school. I'd forgotten how insane the Oompa-Loompas' songs are.

We're on the hold list for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Random House Audio, 1999). Audiobooks have proved to be an ideal remedy for people (like me) who get fidgety/impatient/wildly bored in the car.

Junior, age 11

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth, by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books, 2010). The latest in the popular series.

Controlling Earth's Pollutants, by Christine Petersen (Marshall Cavendish, 2010). An ideal hour of reading for the kiddo: cocoa, blanket, cozy chair, and a book on pollution.

On the nightstand is Nic Bishop Lizards (Scholastic, 2010). Fantastic photos, per usual with Bishop. "Lizards lead lives that are full of surprises." Yeah.


In the Wild,  a picture book written by David Elliott and illustrated by Holly Meade (Candlewick, 2010). Poems about wild animals. Sheesh, this is a beautiful book, with its watercolored woodcuts and all. I asked my son to vet this one for the second grade class I read to. He thought they'd like it.

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum, by Meghan McCarthy (Paula Wiseman/Simon& Schuster, 2010). We're thinking the second graders will like this one, too. Great idea for a nonfiction picture book.


Lots of Cybils middle grade/YA nonfiction books, including The Dark Game: True Spy Stories, by Paul B. Janeczko (Candlewick, 2010). Two of the most famous Civil War spies were women. I never knew that.

Second-grade class read-aloud

Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes, written by Margie Palatini and illustrated by Barry Moser (Simon & Schuster, 2009). A new take on the Aesop fable. Very funny, with priceless expressions on the animals' faces. The class loved it. Now, clearly, we must get a hold of Palatini and Moser's Earthquack! (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Audiobookin': Secrets of a Civil War Submarine

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley is proving to be an entertaining audiobook for my 10-year-old guy. We're listening to it in the car on the way to camp each day and on errands around town.

Built and designed in Mobile, the Hunley belonged to the Confederacy. I didn't even know that there were submarines during the Civil War. (I should read more kids' books.) The author, Sally M. Walker, includes lots of engineering details (on ballast, buoyancy, etc.), and does not shy away from the grisly. On this morning's ride alone, two of the submarine's crews have died. (I kept saying, "Oh, that's terrible, that's terrible," until Junior pointed out the repetitious nature of my comments. Still, those poor guys! Anyway...)  I'm thinking since the sub was only pulled up from the ocean floor near Charleston in the 1990s, things aren't going to be so great for at least one more group, either.

Walker, Sally M. Secrets of a Civil War Submarine [sound recording]. Random House/Listening Library, 2007. Read by J.R. Horne.

Newbery (to Gaiman), Caldecott (to Krommes), and Other Children's Literature Award Winners

It's a big day for children's literature. Via a Globe Newswire press release, you can read about the following prizes, which were announced at a meeting of the American Library Association:

Newbery Medal: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Caldecott Medal: Beth Krommes, The House in the Night

Michael R. Printz Award: Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road

Coretta Scott King Book Awards: Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (author award); Floyd Cooper, The Blacker the Berry (illustrator award)

Schneider Family Book Award: Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker

Geisel Award: Are You Ready to Play Outside?, written and illustrated by Mo Willems

Pura Belpré Awards: Yuyi Morales, Just in Case (illustrator award); Margarita Engle, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (author award)

Siebert Medal: Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship

More awards and all the runners up are on the press release.

End-of-Summer Reading List at Our House

In the last several weeks we've been canoeing, kayaking, swimming, watching cartoons, and reading books. Here are a few titles that our 4th grader liked. (4th grade, as of today! I can't believe it.)

Katie Loves the Kittens, a picture book by John Himmelman. Katie the dog is over-enthused about her family's new arrivals. She keeps scaring them when she doesn't mean to. We could relate to her funny struggles with self-control.

Sisters of Scituate Light, by Stephen Krensky, with illustrations by Stacey Schuett. One of Junior's favorite books of the summer, this nonfiction picture book (for kids six and older) tells how two Massachusetts girls saved their town from a British raid during the War of 1812.

Discovering SuperCroc, by Pamela Rushby.  Fossils/paleontology/"giant beasts," in National Geographic's Science Chapters series.

Pirates! Raiders of the High Seas,
a DK Reader by Christopher Maynard. Easily read in one sitting.

Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe, with photographs by Barbara J. Bergwerf. Winner of the ASPCA's Henry Bergh Children's Book Award, this nonfiction picture book about loggerhead sea turtle conservation is a must for beach lovers. The close mother-daughter relationship depicted in the book is heartwarming.

The Scrambled States of America Talent Show. A nutty followup to the nutty Scrambled States of America, Laurie Keller's picture book for children seven and older shows a raucous geography pageant.

About Habitats: Wetlands, a short nonfiction picture book by Cathryn P. Sill, with watercolor paintings by John Sill. A simple introduction to the concept of wetlands, with a sentence or two per spread. In small type at the bottom of the page are things to look for in the full-page watercolor illustrations. The Sills have a whole "About" series on various animals, too.

Poetry Friday: Poetry Speaks to Children

Imagedbcgi_5 As a teenager I read and admired Langston Hughes's poetry. Given the powerful drama of lines like "What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?.../Or does it explode?,"  I expected that Hughes would speak in deep, stentorian tones.

Hearing his voice on the Poetry Speaks to Children CD surprised me recently. Hughes introduces another poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," telling a bit about how he wrote it, and then reads it. To my ear, he is much more of a tenor, although his message is still basso profundo: "I've known rivers/Ancient, dusky rivers./My soul has grown deep like the rivers." I enjoyed the contrast—and the gift of hearing the poet, who died in 1967,  read his own work. (I should mention that the "raisin in the sun" poem is not on the CD.)

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is just one selection in Poetry Speaks to Children, which is accompanied by a CD of some 60 tracks of poets and others reciting their own poems. Roald Dahl is on there, as are Rita Dove and Robert Frost. Compiled by Elise Paschen, the wide-ranging anthology offers lots of pictures and works from the serious (Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening") to the very silly (C.K. Williams' "Gas").

I'm sharing the book a little at a time with my 7 year old, who is a great age for Poetry Speaks to Children. There's plenty here for younger kiddos, too.

The book and CD remind me how much I like Langston Hughes, and I  am happy to catch up with him again. The bonus is getting to meet a number of new (to me) writers, too.

Pssst. Hey, you poetry folks. You can also hear Hughes read and introduce "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" at the Academy of American Poets.

Liz B. rounds up all the participants in Poetry Friday today at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy.

A Story's Journey, by Guest Columnist Amy Friedman

I enjoy behind-the-scenes stories. Here's one from Amy Friedman, who emailed me a while back about a new audiobook. She sent me the CD, which showcases Friedman's folktale adaptations and features lively performances by a roster of actors. The 70-minute disk would make a nice accompaniment to the drive to Grandma's this holiday season. I'll let Amy take it from here:

"Tell Me A Story: Timeless Folktales from Around the World," the audiobook I produced this year with my husband, Dennis Danziger, and my colleague and friend, Lori Ada Jaroslow, feels like one stop in a long journey, the sort people in folktales are forever taking.

Sometimes I think it all started when I was a kid and my dad endlessly listened to radio and read newspapers—and taught me to love both.  Back in the 1980s I was a a newspaper columnist, working with Neil Reynolds, a groundbreaking editor at the Kingston, Ontario, Whig-Standard newspaper, and I asked him why we didn't publish any material for kids; he sent me off to figure out something we could add. Not long after that I wrote for that little Canadian newspaper the first adaptations of folktales, fairytales, myths, and legends from around the world, and three weeks later, 10 Canadian papers picked up the feature. They too had felt that hunger. Or maybe the journey began, truly, on a primitive farm in South Africa where Jillian Gilliland, the illustrator of our column, first began to draw. There's the thread that brought Dan Dalton, salesman and artist extraordinaire working for Universal Press Syndicate into the Whig-Standard offices where he tapped me on the shoulder, wanting to discuss what was then called "The Bedtime Story" and has since become "Tell Me a Story," a newspaper feature Jillian and I continue to create that runs in hundreds of newspapers all over the world, in places as different and faraway from each other as Shanghai, China, and Canton, Ohio.

Maybe the journey would have ended with the newspaper column and the two books we've published from that column, but my journey took a turn when my younger daughter, Cassandra, struggling with dyslexia, learned the joy and wonder of reading only after she discovered audiobooks, and I remembered again my love of radio. Cass may have been the ultimate catalyst that led me last year, having published nearly 800 stories and counting for our feature (, to stop waiting around for some audio publisher to walk in and tap me on the shoulder, offering a contract.

Cass and my beloved mother-in-law who passed away and left us a small inheritance she wished us to use for something wonderful.

One day not long after Sarah passed away I attended a spoken word event back in LA where by then I had moved to marry Dennis (after nearly 20 years in Ontario). There I was listening to Kathleen Wilhoite reading a story she'd written, and I suddenly heard one of my favorite folktale characters come to life. The next day in a writing class I teach, as Lauren Tom was reading one of her stories, I heard another character, and by the end of that week I'd decided how to best use Sarah's gift.

Soon after that magic stepped when Lori--another fine actress and one of the readers on the CD as well as its director—introduced me to Laura Hall. I recognized Laura as the pianist on one of my favorite tv shows—the improv hit "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"—but even more amazing, I recognized her as the composer of the music I'd recently heard and loved on a film by another student of mine. Obviously Laura and I were supposed to meet. One of those fateful moments, and the magic of her studio, her children—Ruthie and Eva who selected the final 8 stories—and her marvelously talented husband Rick Hall (one of the actors on the CD) assured me I had taken the right turn in the road.

The journey went on, but perhaps most important is this: I've always loved the stories I've written, but every person who became involved with this project—from the actors who read to the musicians who play to the man who mixed and mastered it to the gent who designed it, to friends who have helped to promote it, has added another element of magic. For me the work is something almost mystical, a creation I'm not responsible for but, rather, have had the opportunity to enjoy.

Whenever I watch the faces of children as they listen to our CD, and when I watch their faces in classrooms I visit as a storyteller I see the delight and understanding and joy that magic creates. And then I understand again that radio (and by extension records and CDS) truly is the theater of the mind, and despite the endless work and the fear of squandering money I don't have to squander, in those moments I know there is magic in listening to stories.

That's why we're already selecting stories for the next CD, and why as of January we'll begin recording. (You can hear a taste of the CD at and you can read more about the whole history of its creation on our website at

Can Poetry Matter?

I'm borrowing the title of Dana Gioia's book of essays to ponder something. The shelves at public libraries and school libraries are overflowing with books of poetry, and I can't help wondering how many of those get read and how often.

Please don't get me wrong. I am pro-poetry. (How could a lit blogger be anything else!) But when I see the enormous supply of it at the library, I am curious. And, for that matter, why do some children (okay, mine) occasionally declare, "No poetry! No!" when you try to read them some? Is it force-fed at school? I have no idea. The Washington Post even starts a review of a new anthology with the line, "Who says kids don't like po'try?" Well, nobody, but I do sense a disconnect somewhere.

At any rate, both the Post and NPR are recommending Poetry Speaks to Children, a collection of 100 poems that comes with a CD of many poets reading their own work. NPR says,

The book is designed to be read by children 6 years and older. But Elise Paschen, a poet herself and the book's editor, says it appeals to kids as young as 2. "And not only that, it really appeals to adults. I think that you can read these poems on all levels."