31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Best Audiobooks for Kids
A BRAND NEW CATEGORY!!
Oh, I’m so excited. And I’d like to credit Overdrive’s Libby app for getting me into audiobooks so entirely. Of course, there is a catch to all of this. The more audiobooks you listen to, the more difficult it becomes to listen without getting finicky over details. There’s that certain male audiobook narrator who can’t do the voice of girls without making them sound whiny (you know who you are, dude). Or the narrator who couldn’t do an Irish accent to save her life. Then there are the perfectly decent ones. Those exist in abundance. You won’t find them here today. Today, I’m tipping a hat to the ones I discovered in 2021 that really just knocked it out of the park. Each and every last one of them, a star. But since my ears are limited, I want to hear about the ones that you loved too! Mention in my comments anyone you particularly cared for. I wanna hear about them!
2021 Best Audiobooks for Kids
Being Clem by Lesa Cline-Ransome, narrated by Dion Graham
If you are an author, it is good to find fellow contemporary authors to aspire to. Me? I aspire to someday lasso even a tenth of the emotional power of a Lesa Cline-Ransome novel. There’s not an excess sentence or superfluous scene in this book. And I had the distinct pleasure of listening to the audiobook and reader Dion Graham, who KILLS IT with his rendition. He made the jokes work. He put real emotion into every page. Sometimes I have to drag myself back to listen to an audiobook. Not this one. I kept finding excuses to listen to more. Little wonder too. Mr. Graham is the audiobook narrator of such 2021 hits as Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, Dave Eggers’ The Every, and so many more. You YA audiobook listeners may have heard him do the Angie Thomas book Concrete Rose. Me? I was just thrilled to learn that he was the same guy that did that Marlon James novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Huge talent. Would love to see him do more stuff on the children’s side.
Franklin Endicott and the Third Key by Kate DiCamillo, narrated by William Jackson Harper
A very good book in spite of the fact that somehow I got it into my head for most of it that Franklin was Horace Broom (because apparently I can only hold one boy character at a time in said head). By this point in the proceedings the Deckawoo Drive books are taking on an entire life of their own. You sink into them and find yourself in a small town where the local economy is such that it can support a store that sells the strangest of used goods. And, as ever with the Decakawoo books, DiCamillo is in top form. One particular treat is the fact that they managed to get actor William Jackson Harper (a.k.a. Chidi from The Good Place) to do the audiobook. Harper’s a natural but he does relatively few audiobooks in a given year. One wonders how they got him to do this. A mystery, and a delightful one at that. You can’t argue with results!
J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard, ill. Akeem S. Roberts, narrated by Tivia Lynnell
What would you do if your mom gave you the worst haircut of your life? J.D. turns a personal tragedy into a thriving business when he picks up some clippers and taps into his true talent. That is, until someone tries to shut him down… Love it. I agree that this is a kid fantasy wish-fulfillment situation. That said, it’s just chock full of personality and humor. You really feel like you know, not just the characters, but the town as well. The audiobook’s definitely the way to go if you want a fun entry into this new series. Narrator Tivia Lynnell has the unenviable job of having to come up with a wide range of different types of voices for this truly huge cast. She does a stellar job, particularly since she’s gotta go all Nancy Cartwright on us and try to embody a boy. So far I could only find that she’s done the three books in this series, so here’s hoping she does more books for kids soon. Extra points for her describing herself as a “Voice Sculptress” on her website. Love that.
Long Road to the Circus by Betsy Bird, narrated by Emily Ellet
Few of my books have ever had audiobook components. I think that years ago Giant Dance Party got a CD, thanks to the Scholastic Book Fair in some way, but I was never able to make myself listen to it. Not because I thought the audiobook narrator would do a bad job. There’s just something distinctly unnerving about hearing words that originated in your brain repeated by another human being’s lips. Does that make any sense at all? In any case, I’m a children’s librarian by training anyway. I like reading aloud. Do it all the time. So when I heard that there would be an audiobook of Long Road to the Circus, naturally I asked if I could do the narration myself. I wasn’t surprised that they wanted to go with a professional, though. Who wouldn’t? And as an extra treat, I actually got to help audition six of the women that tried out for the job! Let me tell you, if listening to one person reading your words strikes you as odd, try six. In the end the producer and I both agreed that Ms. Emily Ellet was the clear standout. She brings the humor, which is key, never flagged in her reading, and I just like her voice, doggone it. She gets this book. Take a listen and see if you agree.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac, narrated by Joseph Bruchac
During the pandemic, Malian has to shelter in place with her grandparents. After a mysterious dog arrives, she learns fascinating truths about her family and the struggles they have endured. Bruchac narrates his own audiobook and it hardly takes any time to listen to at all. Clocking in at a handsome 1 hr and 35 minutes, you’ll breeze through this particularly timely verse novel. His read works at its own pace but doesn’t draw things out unnecessarily. And, to be frank, when I listened to this reading I needed a gentle book about family and history. This book provided precisely that. A good and quiet novel with a great narrator.
The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas by María García Esperón, ill. Amanda Mijangos, translated by David Bowles, narrated by David Bowles
A compilation of over 50 stories from Indigenous civilizations across the Americas. Sometimes when you encounter a collection of stories, you have a hard time following the editor’s organization. In this case, I think Esperón did a great job of including a few longer stories that dip in-between the shorter tales. And I particularly enjoyed the note at the beginning that explains that contemporary listeners may not agree with some of the lessons these stories impart. For my part, this book works particularly well as an audiobook, and little wonder. Narrator David Bowles is also the book’s translator, thereby obliterating any fears one might harbor about whether or not he’s getting the pronunciations right. His read is straightforward but not dull. You find that his voice presents the material while also seemingly stepping back to let it hold center stage. Listen to all 5 hours and 3 minutes straight through and you find yourself almost hypnotized by the sheer epic nature of the telling. Marvelous.
Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas, narrated by Ruffin Prentiss and Mark Sanderlin
Music-loving Ezra has developed a crush on his shy, nervous friend Brian and cannot tell anyone. Meanwhile, Brian has to land on his feet after a major family crisis. I should mention right off the bat that this is an amusing book to read if you’re not aware that it’s set in Canada. Initially, there’s nothing to give that fact away, but then as it progresses you start to have your suspicions. In any case, this was a very mature look at the complexity behind trauma and, fascinatingly, the different rates at which kids mature when it comes to emotional relationships. Of course, it’s possible that I would have missed that nuance had it not been for the dual vocal stylings of Prentiss and Sanderlin. They alternate chapters between Ezra and Brian. Generally this works well, though it is a little odd if Prentiss has to read a bit of Sanderlin’s character or vice versa. Prentiss tends to narrate a lot of the Lamar Giles middle grade fiction, while Sanderlin does a lot of Patterson/Minecraft/LGBTQ titles. A good mix.
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, narrated by Jax Jackson
Bug’s house has always been haunted but it wasn’t until Uncle Rodrick died that things started to get weird. Is Rodrick trying to tell Bug something? And is it something Bug’s ready to hear? The remarkable blending of haunting and trans discovery is expertly rendered here. I really think Kyle’s tone here is pitch perfect. No one writes uncertainty better than he does. Probably the best trans middle grade book I’ve ever read. The audiobook narrator was in a bit of a pickle, though. Bug doesn’t know, going into this story, that this story is going to be a trans narrative, so how do you account for that with a narrator’s voice? I should note that this audiobook came to my attention when all around children’s book expert Susannah Richards told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was the best audiobook of the year. Jax Jackson has a large part to play in that. An actor described on Facebook as agender, Jax is currently acting on Broadway in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Better still, Kyle knew Jax, even before this casting and was delighted by the choice. Better put your money on this one for an Odyssey Award next month then!
The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart, narrated by Nick Afka Thomas
Set in a futuristic England at war, three boys find themselves in danger when they anger the fairies and must battle enemies on every side. I just regret it took me this long to read this book. After reading a lot of “meh” fantasies this year, I needed a book with great writing that was funny and smart. This book fits the bill. Few authors could successfully meld dystopia with fairies in a middle grade title, but Mr. Stewart manages it. I highly recommend you get the audiobook as well. Right from the get-go you’ll enjoy Mr. Thomas. He has to do a wide range of accents and rarely disappoints. I had the shock of my life when I decided to look him up online. I was expecting an old, grizzled, fellow that looked like a longshoreman with maybe a few interesting scars. Instead, I get this pup of a lad living in L.A. Now THAT is voice acting my friend. I may have to start seeking out other audiobooks he’s done, he’s just that good.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold, narrated by Marie Arnold
I save the best for last. In this story, young Gabrielle moves from Haiti to Brooklyn. In doing so, she meets a witch and is offered the chance to assimilate with the aid of magic. But at what price would you give up everything you are to fit in? Arnold reads this book herself and she does something rather amazing with it. You see, when she gets to the part where Gabrielle gives up her accent thanks to a spell, Arnold abruptly stops reading in an accent as well. We didn’t hear many authors read their own books this year (just Arnold and Bruchac on this list) but clearly someone somewhere realized that Ms. Arnold was the only person in the world qualified to give this audiobook exactly what it needed. One of my clear and outright favorite listens.
And here’s what else we have happening 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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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