31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Great Audiobooks for Kids
I don’t know if 2020 was the reason, but as luck would have it, this was the year when I started listening to audiobooks at a prodigious rate. Maybe it was because of all those days that my library was shut down since I suddenly had more time in the morning to take a walk to Lake Michigan and back. While walking I would listen to books found via my library’s Hoopla and Overdrive apps. The end result is that for the very first time I have some strong opinions on the audiobooks (and their readers) of 2020. Here are the ones I thought knocked it out of the park, including one in particular that managed to turn me around 180 degrees on a title that hadn’t been doing it for me (see if you can guess which one).
Before the Ever After by Jacquline Woodson, read by Guy Lockard
Sometimes you just want to read a book where a boy has problems (like a football player dad suffering from too many concussions) but also has incredibly supportive family and friends to get him through. How do you listen to a new audiobook of a title you’ve never read before? For me, I put in my earbuds, press play, then immediately try to figure out if the first voice I hear is the narrator or the representative voice of the publisher. When I do hear the narrator I can sometimes tell right away if I like them or not. Guy Lockard? I like that guy. He has the voice of a football player, but can sound like a kid with minimal effort. Since Jackie writes in verse, her audiobook narrators need to be able to glide through her texts without a stumble or trip. Mr. Lockard is a pro. He makes her words feel as natural as falling off a log. You’d listen to him read the user agreement of your iPhone if you had to. He’s just that good. A perfect pairing of voice and text.
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, read by Kathleen Gati and Natasha Soudek
Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko are two girls living near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s 1986 and when their fathers get caught up in the accident they must travel to Valentina’s grandmother, Rita Grigorievna, for safety. If you’ll notice, there are two narrators listed for this audiobook. Upon learning this, I just assumed the two women would be reading for Valentina and Oksana, but this is not the case. One woman reads both girls. The other reads the flashback sequences for a third child living during WWII. I believe Gati does the voice of the two girls, and she does an admirable job of distinguishing them. Natasha speaks with slight Russian accent and something about that and the nature of the flashbacks feels distant, but still appropriately distressing. It’s a marvelous look at not just the Soviets of the 80s but also the Anti-Semitism that pervaded multiple eras.
Bloom by Kenneth Oppel, read by Sophie Amoss
I believe I’ve called this Little Shop of Horrors on steroids and I’ll stand by that description. When alien plants invade Earth and start devouring not just native species but also the wildlife (and that includes humans) it takes three young teens to find a way to fight the destruction. I was explaining to one of my kids today how this audiobook can make you so engrossed you could walk a mile listening and not even feel the distance. The sheer adrenaline in these words even allowed me to listen to a particularly tense part while operating an elliptical runner (she didn’t believe me). Reader Sophie Amoss has the thankless job of not only giving voice to girls and boys but also full grown men and women. The cast is extensive and she never falters in her depictions. I was particularly fond of her voice for Anaya’s friend Tereza. You know when you can identify the moment you like a reader? Tereza was that for me. One of those audiobooks you won’t be able to turn off. And I’m listening to the sequel, Hatch, even as I write this.
Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster, read by Ramon De Ocampo
In the world of Emblem Island, each human is born with a small picture or “emblem” on their skin that indicates a particular skill or talent. For Tor Luna, he was born with the emblem of leadership. It’s a symbol he despises and so, on a day when wishes might come true, he wishes to change his symbol. It works, but at a terrible price. Now Tor and two friends are in search of the Night Witch. She’s the only one who can lift the curse on their heads, and to find her they’ll have to travel through an array of real Latinx folktales, any one of which could kill them. Reader Ramon De Ocampo did not initially enthrall me. Perhaps it’s a personal prejudice of mine, but I often find that most women can imitate the voices of grown men with aplomb while some men imitate women and girls horrendously. At first I worried that this would be more of the same but as the story continued De Ocampo’s take grew on me. Part of the allure of the writing is how deftly Aster weaves Latinx storytelling into his novel. De Ocampo, who apparently once got the choice gig of narrating the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, never stumbles over pronunciations and I really came to respect the choices he made with a lot of the character work. If you’re looking for a good high fantasy audiobook, go for this one.
Here In the Real World by Sara Pennypacker, read by Noah Galvin
Ware loves the age of knights and chivalry. Jolene prefers the reality of plants and trees. Together, the give each other a strength they never had apart. This is a powerful look at friendship and the birth of a budding artist told with real skill. As such, it requires a reader with equal skill. Noah Galvin? He’s up to the challenge. I don’t know much about the casting directors of audiobooks, but there must be so many choices they have to make. In the case of this book, Ware is the hero but a lot of the pages are taken up by female characters. Ware’s mom. Jolene. The teenage girl who joins them. Ware’s grandma. You could just as easily have handed this book over to a female narrator. I mean, they play boys in cartoons half the time anyway, right? But Galvin is adept at women and how they talk. This is particularly tricky since Jolene comes across as prickly right from the start. The writing helps you to get to know and like her, but without a good reader you might never come to care for her the same way that Ware does. Galvin’s voice handles some of that heavy lifting, exactly the way a good audiobook narrator should.
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, read by Ron Butler
In this visceral Louisiana-set novel, twelve-year-old Kingston experiences racism and homophobia while grieving the death of an older brother who may now be a dragonfly. By the time I came to this book it had already won the National Book Award for Young People Literature and way back at the beginning of 2020 it got the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Since I would call it the frontrunner for the Newbery Award right now (don’t fight it – you know I’m right) it deserves a more than decent narrator. Ron Butler’s precisely the right pick. This is the guy who did the Audie nominated read for Jerry Craft’s The New Kid. He’s done Kwame Alexander’s Rebound and Out of Wonder. So basically, he’s the guy you tap if you need someone who can just luxuriate in Callender’s marvelous language. Since this is a book that takes great delight in enjoying the process of great writing, it’s a pure pleasure to hear Butler have fun with the syllables. Listen too to how he can distinguish between King’s tween voice, his brother’s teen voice, and their father’s deep baritone. Even the Louisiana accent is golden!
Second Dad Summer by Benjamin Klas, ill. Fian Arroyo, read by Brian Holden
Jeremiah is seriously embarrassed by his dad’s new boyfriend when he goes to stay with them for the summer. I didn’t listen to many books on Hoopla this year, but this one turned out to be a truly wonderful surprise. It’s a small press, so kudos to them for getting an audiobook of this out to begin with. Everyone at my library who encountered this book feel instantly in love with it. Basically, it’s about how Jeremiah chooses to handle his dad’s flamboyant (and incredibly caring) new boyfriend. Reader Brian Holden’s job is to make that clear in the read, but also give Michael simultaneous surface details and a real underlying depth. It’s a bit of vocal linguistics you have to enjoy, particularly when it’s coupled with the older gay guy downstairs who’s probably dying of lung cancer. This isn’t a long book but it sticks with you. Same goes for the audiobook. A happy gay love story about embarrassing parents.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, ill. Jon Klassen, read by Michael Boatman
Oh my god. Michael Boatman, Michael Boatman, Michael Boatman. If you listen to no other audiobook on this list, listen to this one. It’s on Hoopla, by some miracle, so look for it there. Just one chapter and you’ll be an instant convert. I do not know what magic Boatman sprinkled on these pages before his read, but this is an audiobook that I could hear on repeat. He does good chickens. He does a good singing badger. He does a good elderly aunt. And his laughs! Somehow he manages to give both Skunk and Badger these incredible and highly distinctive laughs that just reverberate in your eardrums… in a good way. Let the record state that if this doesn’t win some kind of an Odyssey Award from ALA this year, I’m going to be most seriously put out.
The Sound of Danger (Mac B, Kid Spy) by Mac Barnett, read by Mac Barnett
Mac Barnett has the distinction of being the only author I encountered this year that read their own book. I know that in general a writer has to audition to do this, and many simply defer to professional audiobook readers, knowing how difficult the job must be. I was particularly interested in Mac’s read then since I have read every single one of these books to my kids, and (I don’t like to brag but) my Queen of England imitation is magnificent. Think Jon Stewart meets Dame Edna. I’m just that good. So I felt a little professional jealousy, thinking that Mac might edge in on my Queen of England territory. Turns out, that first, “Hello!” hit just the right note. You can understand why he wanted to read his own book. Mac cultivates a kind of easygoing deadpan (I can’t think of a better way to describe it). My sole nitpick (aside from the Queen’s nonexistent accent)? Not sure if he’s hitting the occasional, “Hm” quite hard enough. Otherwise, fantastic job. I had to do a little digging, but I’m pretty sure all the Mac B, Spy Kid books were released in e-audio form in the last month or so. Hoopla has them, but I’m bet your library could buy them for Overdrive too if that’s your only option. Look for them!
Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick, read by Jorjeana Marie
This one almost got away from me. It was near the end of the year and though my 101 Great Books for Kids committee had wrapped, I knew that this list was coming up and I wanted to listen to ask many books as possible. In this story, neurodivergent Frankie is still stewing over a betrayal she suffered at the hands of her best friend Colette and her twin sister Tess. When Colette goes missing one night, nothing seems to make sense and it’s up to Frankie and Tess to make up and put the pieces together if they’re going to find their friend. I point you to Jorjeana Marie’s read of Frankie as one of the most accomplished of 2020. Because this is her p.o.v. entirely, Marie distinguishes between her thinking voice and her speaking voice. And since half the people in this book are pre-adolescent girls, each one needs to speak differently. Had the text not stood up to scrutiny, I don’t know that I would have enjoyed Marie’s reading as much as I did. As it stands, this is an old-fashioned mystery novel complete with red herrings and the occasional creepy old lady.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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