31 Days, 31 Lists: 2023 Audiobook for Kids
Every work day I step out of my house, set my Apple watch to an “Outdoor Walk” workout, plug my earbuds into my ears, and indulge in a middle grade novel (or sometimes nonfiction) as I walk to my workplace. In this way, a person can listen to a fair number of books in the course of a single year. That said, I miss stuff. In the course of doing these 31 Days, 31 Lists, I’ve learned that The Mona Lisa Vanishes: A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity by Nicholas Day, ill. Brett Helquist has a fantastic audiobook. I didn’t know! Ditto Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir by Pedro Martín. By all accounts SOVAS (the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences) awarded it the “Best Voieover” Award in the “Audiobook Narration – Ensemble Cast” category. So I am limited to only telling you about the books I heard this year that stood out to me in some way. These are some of the standouts, though many others exist.
If you’d like a full PDF of today’s list you may find one here.
Interested in my previous lists of splendid audiobooks? Well, I only have two so far, but ya gotta start somewhere!
2023 Audiobooks for Kids
Dear Mothman by Robin Gow, narrated by Dani Martineck
Ever since Noah’s best friend died he’s been fixated on finding the mysterious cryptid Mothman for his science fair project. A touching tale of grief, identity, and acceptance. And my librarians in my library are freakin’ OBSESSED with this book!!! I am not even kidding you. I mean, I like it absolutely, but nothing compares to the fervor with which they have devoured it. As one told me, “This is absolutely the book I wish I’d had as a kid.” And you see why, of course. Comparisons to Skellig are understandable, what with the light touch of magical realism (which Gow incredibly manages to pull off) but at the heart of the tale is Noah’s grief over losing his friend Lewis. What compounds that grief is that to Noah, Lewis was Lewis and not the “Ella” that everyone thought he was. Noah too is known at school as “Nora” and is having to deal with how to come out to everyone that loves him. It’s nice and complicated, with no formal rules or plans. The idea of what it is to be a monster in this day and age struck me as particularly timely. I do feel the book takes a little while to get going, but once he’s lost in the woods it really picks up. All told, it’s a carefully put together book that is going to find its audience. Narrator Dani Martineck (they/them) was already familiar to me, as I believe I’d heard their work on a previous favorite MG science fiction novel We’re Not From Here. In this book they have to wrangle with Noah’s voice primarily, but other characters do pop in from time to time. Noah’s narration is in danger of getting a little too introspective, so I thought that Martineck did a great job of punctuating his interior dialogue at all the right points. There were even moments when Noah’s voice seemed on the verge of cracked into tears. THAT is great narration!
Don’t Want to Be Your Monster by Deke Moulton, narrated by Davin Babulal and Noah Beemer
Shoot. A book about vampire siblings should not actually be this good. This, folks, is why one has to look past genre from time to time, because a great writer can take any topic and make it absolutely jaw-droppingly good. This is one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to personally review this year, because Moulton’s writing is just incredible. In this story you’ve two vampire brothers. There’s Victor, who was turned into a vampire at the age of four and there’s Adam, who was a baby when he was turned. In this world, vampires historically were healers who helped humans. Unfortunately, prejudice and hatred has run them underground. Now Adam and Victor live with their moms and a rotating crew of different “siblings” in their kooky, makeshift family. Adam’s happy with their life but Victor is chafing under the restrictions. And that’s before a vampire hunter/serial killer comes to town, killing people in an effort to lure the local vampires out. Moulton leans into the fact that historically people turn on marginalized groups when they want to blame their problems on someone, pretty hard, but you’re there for it. It doesn’t hurt that the vampire hunter in this book is the scariest villain I’ve encountered in a children’s novel all year. Seriously, I was a little nervous returning to this book because I wasn’t entirely certain he wasn’t going to kill literally every person in the story. Extra points for the information in the back giving context to the origins of how we think of vampires and antisemitic myths. Dual narrator s Davin Babulal and Noah Beemer play the roles of Victor and Adam, but have to be comfortable switching between the other side characters at any time. That means they have to be in tandem at all times. If they weren’t, you’d feel a jolt every time a side character spoke in a different way. Both actors play their roles to the hilt. So much so that I never felt taken out of the book when it switched between one or the other. Top notch audiobook work.
The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, ill. Shawn Harris, narrated by Ethan Hawke
Nobody can run like Johannes, and on the island park where he lives he likes it that way. He and other animals are the eyes of the island, but when big changes head their way, will they be prepared to face the unknown? So anytime a publisher starts touting an “all ages story” from a famous, primarily adult, author I get all squidgy and nervous. And it’s an animal story as well? Oh boy. But Eggers is always interesting to watch. Sometimes I like his books and sometimes I do not, but in this particular case I think he’s put his finger on something particularly choice. On the illustration side, Shawn Harris has inserted Johannes running into a slew of paintings of nature, and it’s so seamless and natural that I didn’t even realize that they weren’t his original illustrations until I saw the credits in the end. Eggers plays fair with this book and I was very taken with the ending. So it seems a touch unfair to include this book on an audiobook list, if only because the narrator is Ethan Hawke himself. That said, I would have been hard pressed to say whether or not an audiobook edition of this title was even possible. There is a bit of a run-on-sentence quality to it. It takes a firm vocal hand to keep it in line at all times. And if you’d like to get a taste of what I mean, listen to this trailer here:
The Grace of Wild Things by Heather Fawcett, ill. Aven Shore
Imagine an Anne of Green Gables where Marilla is a witch and tries to eat Anne upon meeting her. Grace is determined to study under the tutelage of the local witch. When she’s given a near impossible task to finish or lose her magic, it will take all her gumption, smarts, and friends to win the day. I came dangerously close, just now, from forgetting to put this book on my lists. That would be a HUGE problem too because this book is doing something infinitely clever and should have that cleverness called out once in a while. Essentially, this is fantasy fan fiction of Anne of Green Gables and it works. It works SO WELL. The emotions, the beats in the storyline, the whole kerschmozzle. So much of this is reliant on the personality of the witch. Fawcett has to walk this fine line of making her occasionally sympathetic but also a friggin’ witch who eats kids. It reminded me a lot of that graphic novel from a couple years ago Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola. In both cases you’ve a young lady working for a witch, having to get around the whole devouring small children thing. I loved the premise of Grace having to perform every spell in the witch’s spellbook. I liked very much how the witch slowly comes to like Grace. But most difficult of all is making YOU like Grace and not find her annoying. Which she is a lot of the time, but she’s got that same charm that Anne had. Of course, what this all means is that narrator Aven Shore has a huge job to do. She has to get the growly annoyance of the witch just right, as well as Grace’s blithe incompetent competence. I thought it a particularly accomplished audiobook reading, and always looked forward to hearing more. Top notch work all around!
Heroes of Havensong: Dragonboy by Megan Reyes, narrated by Mark Sanderlin
First off, I need someone to track down the cover artist of this book and give them ALL THE THINGS. All of them, people! This may be one of the BEST book jackets I’ve seen this year, at least in terms of accuracy to the characters, if nothing else. Wowza! Now you’re going to see a lot of different kinds of fantasy on this list today. What there isn’t a lot of is high fantasy. World building. Maps. Characters that must join together to defeat a great evil. That’s where Megan Reyes comes in. She isn’t interested in making this easy for herself. No, she’s determined to tell four different characters’ stories all at the same time (five if you count the talkative fox). More than that, her fantasy land isn’t just some two-bit Middle Earth knockoff. There is a LOT of history to cover between a variety of different kingdoms. Miraculously, she pulls it off. There’s exposition but no exposition dumps, if you know what I mean. Every single person in this book is distinct and complicated and not always in the right. You might have to catch up with what she’s telling you from time to time, but you never feel lost. It’s an amazing accomplishment and a superior book. If you want a challenging fantasy that’s a little longer than the rest and takes big swings (that pay off!) this is the book for you. Besides, who doesn’t love feathered dragons? For this book with its four distinct narrators, the publisher had to bring in the big guns. Which is to say, it had to bring in Mark Sanderlin. The man’s a professional and he knows it. In the course of this book he has to do foxes, dragons, villains, heroes, and even come up with some Irish and English accents along the way. It’s a masterful performance. I know that I, for one, was exhausted just listening!
The In-Between by Katie Van Heidrich, narrated by Angel Pean
The verse memoir. That’s a tricky one. For a nonfiction stickler like me I want so badly to shove it in either a fiction category or a nonfiction category, but here’s where the problem with memory plays a part. If Van Heidrich says this is her memory then it is her memory. There’s dialogue but it’s dialogue as she remembers it. So even if it comes across as a VERY accomplished verse novel, we have to take it on face value that it technically belongs in my older nonfiction category. All that being said, this is an amazingly written title. The premise and the cover? It took me a long time to get past them, which I regret because the writing that I found inside is remarkable. In this story, a single mom with three kids is forced to live for a time in a hotel while she searches for a job. The sheer soul-sucking nature of this situation comes through like an air horn. And it doesn’t help that their dad, with whom they spend every other weekend, has a home with a bunch of empty bedrooms, yet he makes the kids all share a pull away bed together. It’s sparse and spare and manages to deliver so much with so few pages. You are in this room. You feel this story. I also highly recommend that if you are able, listen to the audiobook read by Angel Pean. I love a narrator capable of highlighting just how amazing the language in a book is. And this book? Incredible. She gets all the nuances of the text just right. Every moment of repetition comes off like poetry when she reads it. A superior audiobook.
The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh, narrated by Anna Fikhman, Christopher Gebauer, and Jesse Vilinsky
A 13-year-old boy trapped indoors by Covid-19 uncovers a dark family secret leading back to the Holodomor, the early 1930s Ukrainian famine caused by Stalin’s policies. This is a unicorn. It’s one of those books with three narratives that actually works. I’ve noticed a slight increase in adult nonfiction focusing on the Ukrainian famine recently, but we hadn’t really seen anything on the children’s side of things. The reason I’ve included it on the American History list is that two of the narratives focus on our American history, both the early days of the pandemic and an America that wrestled with how to acknowledge (or fail to do so) what was happening in the Ukraine. I’m not ashamed to say that as a 45-year-old woman I was inordinately proud of myself for figuring out the twist in the story. Some kids may see it coming, but not all will. Additionally, its audiobook is WELL worth listening to. Multiple narrators tackle the three kids in the book, and it’s incredible to consider that they needed each of those narrators to not only be good at acting itself but to also correctly pronounce both Ukrainian and Russian terms with aplomb. I wouldn’t have considering pairing a pandemic storyline alongside a Ukrainian famine one, but it makes a LOT of sense. A kid stuck with his great-grandmother for weeks on end is going to be more inclined to hear her story than one able to leave the house. Gorgeously written and cleverly plotted (something I personally find so hard to do). I was entranced.
The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels by Beth Lincoln, ill. Claire Powell, narrated by Nikki Patel
Every year I wish that I had read enough mysteries to make a Mystery List and every year I read only a few. But by gum if I HAD done a Mystery List in 2023, this would have been at the tippy tippy top. Lincoln kicks off the book with an epic funeral rehearsal fail and just goes from there. The basic premise is that in the Swift family, every member has been named by a random selection of a word from the dictionary. That’s why you end up with a heroine named Shenanigan who wants nothing more than to discover the lost Swift fortune. She and her siblings and various relatives live in a crumbling estate (crumbling estates were also very hot in 2023 middle grade children’s books, by the way) and it’s time for a massive family reunion. However, when an attempt is made on the life of the matriarch of the family (Great-Aunt Schadenfreude) it’s up to Shenanigan and her siblings to find the culprit. That this book has been as well-received as it has this year is a testament to its writing as well as its marketing team. I found the Swifts delightful, funny, and wackadoodle in all the right ways. Extra points to the excellent audiobook by Nikki Patel, which gets all the voices just right (with the possible exception of Daisy’s American twang). With this many characters, it’s almost impossible to keep them all distinct, but Patel manages it. This may be the book on today’s list with the biggest cast. For that, it is a standout alone.
You Are Here: Connecting Flights, edited by Ellen Oh, narrated by David Lee Huynh, Dana Wing Lau, Ramon de Ocampo, and Jeanne Syquia
A dozen amazing Asian-American middle grade authors each contribute a story set on a stormy day in a fictional Chicago airport. As 12 middle schoolers wait to board their respective flights, they each take a thrilling stand for justice…and themselves. I was curious about this one since folks have been asking whether or not a book with this many multiple authors can be considered seriously for a Newbery. The trouble with short story collections is often that you get a real variety in quality. Here, almost all the stories are strong. I only objected to one tale (which shall remain nameless) where its particular author decided they needed to spell out their message as clearly as humanly possible. For the most part, though, the entire product came off as super strong and it had a really interesting way of pulling everything together at the end. I had to check and double check a couple of times to make sure that there really were only four narrators that worked on this book. With all its different storylines I thought that there would be at least seven! Turns out, these folks are just super talented. They meld together beautifully, convincing you of a much larger cast.
Hope you enjoyed these! Here are the lists you can expect for the rest of this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readaloud
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Comics & Graphic Novels
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 – Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists
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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