Summer! Time for watermelon, s’mores, road trips, and — of course! — the annual Dinner A Love Story kid’s reading round-up. This year, I’m happy to present a twist: The gifted and talented mother, magazine vet, friend of DALS, and childrens’ book lover extraordinaire, Rory Evans tackles the best audiobooks for kids (and their parents). Take it from here Rory! –Jenny
Last week, my 5-year-old daughter asked me—as good as out of nowhere—”You know the man who reads Henry Huggins? What else does he do?” She was referring, of course, to Mr. Neil Patrick Harris, and I explained to her the basics of being a show biz triple-threat: “He acts, he sings, and he dances. He hosts the Tony Awards. And a long time ago, when he was just a child, he played a doctor on TV.” But I think her mere curiosity about him speaks to his talent as a reader—and we have indeed spent many happy hours (usually shuttling between New York and Boston) listening to him read Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books.
Having a kid and a car turned me and my husband Jamie into audiobook people. (Prior to being a mother, I was simply the person hitting scan repatedly, in desperate search of “Genie in a Bottle.”) I think it started when my daughter was about 2, and I downloaded ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas from iTunes to listen to on our way to my parents’ house for the holidays, and it just hasn’t let up since. Usually, I’ve bought audiobooks of stories that one of us has already read to her—the recording simply gives us someone else’s interpretation of the story. As someone who could get motion sick just looking at a car, audiobooks have also introduced me, for the first time in my life, to that spacy, relaxing other-head you can get in while being engrossed in a really good story as you zoom along the 84 in Connecticut (or, heaven forbid, are stuck in bumper-to-bumper on the Jackie Robinson in Queens). What follows is a summation of some of our favorites—I recommend them for getaway weekend drives like the Fourth of July! We ourselves are planning a 37 hour drive to Arizona at the end of the summer, and I think for that, we are going to need the God-only-knows-how-many discs of a Harry Potter book.)
(Note: These audiobooks are for all ages, unless otherwise specified—though it really depends on attention span, crankiness, hunger, and all other variables related to childrearing in general.)
This was an early purchase, and one we still listen to frequently years later. It’s an actual CD (the ITunes file wasn’t available when I bought it) with five different stories about Frances the badger (though, maddeningly, it doesn’t have A Bargain for Frances, which I think is the best one). Each story runs about 12 or so minutes, which as I recall, is how we introduced Evan to stories in the car: Short, familiar tales she recognized from bedtime. They were good for the brief trip to the grocery store, but we soon realized she would happily listen to story after story. Glynis Johns has been everywhere—on stage, screen, and TV—and her British accent gives the stories a kind of absurd gravitas that I think Frances herself would be insanely and, of course, boastfully proud of.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Whack and smack; whack and smack” from Bedtime for Frances, and “We know S-M-F-O” from A Birthday for Frances. (Honestly, it’s a wonder we ever say anything to each other that’s *not* from these books. That’s how distinct and awesome Johns’s accent and enunciation are.)
The voice actors of these books all do a fine job, but the stories themselves are transcendent—some seriously economical storytelling about life, love, death and family. Island Boy and Miss Rumphius are essentially cradle-to-grave tales, and Eleanor is about Eleanor Roosevelt’s unhappy (bordering on abusive) childhood, the loss of her parents, and her blossoming under the care of a headmistress, Mlle Souvestre. (Ages 4 and up)
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “One day she met the Bapa Raja, the king of a fishing village.” (About Miss Rumphius! Not Eleanor! We don’t think it was a romantic tryst, but of course we always joke that it might’ve been.)
Jenny and Andy have written about how good and deeply sweet this story is, and John McDonough owns every word of it. He has this big, rich voice that’s a comforting authority through the scarier/more existential parts of the story (when Sylvester loses hope in the winter, when he’s stuck as a rock; the very notion of child disappearing into thin air). I loved his reading so much I also got his version of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, which is set to lots of moody pan flute, and is essentially what a dream-catcher would become if compressed into an MP3 file.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “left hind fetlock”—from when Sylvester is confirming the pebble is magic, and wishes a wart on his left leg away.
I don’t say things like this lightly: I read Brave Irene better than Meryl Streep does. Evan and I had been deep into a Brave Irene routine, sometimes reading it in the morning and again at bedtime, so I had my rendition *down* by the time I got the audiobook. I saw Irene as a solid lovebug and sweetheart, so when I turned on the Lady Streep, and heard her give Irene a kind of blithely cocky 8-year-old angle (“I can get it there!”), it didn’t sit right. It still doesn’t—but even so, we still listen to it often.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Dress warmly, pudding”
Play time: 3 hours 35 minutes; about 5 minutes a chapter
When you listen to a book read by its author, you kind of can’t decide—as I did, with Meryl and Brave Irene—that he’s reading it the wrong way. Charlotte’s Web is a delightful, deep, happy/sad book that, to date, I’ve never been able to read aloud without some serious water works. (I even cry in the first act, when Charlotte’s death is ever so vaguely foreshadowed.) To hear White read the story, give the characters understatedly distinct voices, is nothing short of mind-boggling. Lobel’s reading of Frog and Toad books, meanwhile, comes off a little goofier than I’d imagined them when reading them myself. Arnold Lobel was married, with children, and he died of AIDS in 1987, when he was 54 years old—that is all I know for certain, but I still can’t help wondering if Frog and Toad could be interpreted as gay, with the more self-assured Frog being out, and the more insecure Toad being closeted. No matter what, the two are sweeties, and wonderfully mismatched friends—and it’s cool to be able to hear the deceased author’s version.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “In the baahhhhwwn cellah” in White’s high-WASP dialect, and, from Frog and Toad, “After I put on my bathing suit, you must not look at me until I get into the water.”
The hardest I’ve ever geeked out on a celebrity in person—and this is counting the time I saw Tony Randall at a Chemical Bank ATM in the early 90s!—was on Tony Shalhoub, and it was over this audiobook. If you look closely at Shalhoub, you might still be able to see tracks of my geek slime on him, placed there when the poor, unsuspecting man was touring the place I used to work, and I was compelled to walk up to him and unload some loving admiration. I’ve loved this book since I first read it in one day when I was about 9, and the calm, sweet-voiced and soft-spoken Shalhoub does it such justice (the interludes of violin music—meant to be Chester cricket playing his wings—also help). The book was first published in 1960, and it has some rather stereotyped depictions of both Chinese and Italian immigrants, yet Shaloub is able to handle them with sensitivity.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “All late papers! Magazines!”
Read by: Stockard Channing
When Stockard Channing was 33, she played high school teenager Rizzo in Grease. And you didn’t think she was too old for the role, did you? The same goes for these books, where she nails a version of Ramona Quimby, who’s four at the beginning of the series (in Beezus and Ramona—the only book of the group with Beezus, and not her little sister, as protagonist). Cleary’s books take place in Portland, Oregon, but Channing calls in accents and dialects from all over the U.S.: Miss Binney, the beloved kindergarten teacher, sounds southern; construction workers at a local job site sound like they’re from the Bronx, Mrs. Kemp, the harried neighbor, sounds straight out of the midwest. Her Beezus is just as heartbreakingly earnest as Cleary makes her out in the books, and she manages to make Ramona seem sympathetic, lovable, and misunderstood despite her sometimes horrible behavior. Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Howwwwieeee” in an ear-splitting midwestern accent.
The same passion NPH brought to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he brings to Henry Huggins. The charm of these books—there are six in the series—is that they tell of a timeless American boyhood (and by timeless, I mean pre-PlayStation; Cleary wrote them in the 1950s), with Henry earnestly and independently problem-solving his way out of scrape after scrape. He has a dog and a paper route and I can’t quite explain it—but you will surely agree once you give a listen—his stories were meant to be told by Neil Patrick Harris. As with Cricket in Times Square, there’s some outdated social stuff in these book— retrograde gender politics, with Mrs. Huggins (the Cleary books actually refer to adults as Mr. and Mrs.!) a sometimes harried homemaker—and Harris gives Henry’s mom so much respect and admiration.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Don’t make me laaaauughhh!”
(Honorable mention to B.D. Wong, and his Mouse and the Motorcycle and Runaway Ralph—his reading of Chum, the hamster in a neighboring cage at the Happy Acres camp, as a chubby Southern dandy is worth the price of the audiobook alone.)
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Read by Cherry Jones
Play time: 4 to 5 hours per book
In a perfect, rose-colored world, Karen Grassle would read these stories. She played Ma on the Little House on the Prairie television series, and her sweet mildness set the tone for my understanding of the books. In truth, though, the Ma in the books is a hard woman! Practical, and loving, yes—but my lord, stern. The Ingalls family withstood hardship after hardship, and Cherry Jones conveys this in her pure, plainspoken, and unsentimental rendition. She has a slight Tennessee twang, and you can especially hear it when she’s reading Edwards, their razorback neighbor; and sometimes you catch her smiling behind her sentences—usually when Pa or Carrie are on the scene. Again, when I got these, I bought the discs (they come five or six discs to a book) and they are such a perfect mix of captivating and relaxing and edifying to listen to, we will listen to an entire book during one trip up to Massachusetts. Note: They get pretty grim around The Long Winter, and after that, the books have a fair amount of coverage of boys and girls—or, in the case of Almanzo and Laura, man and girl—a’courtin’.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Well I’ll be jiggered!”
This book is better than Charlotte’s Web, I discovered last year when I read it aloud (sobbing though much of it) last year to Evan. I’m always shocked when people with kids haven’t heard of it—it’s about a porcelain toy rabbit who’s a dandy narcissist, and the various homes and owners he cycles through over several decades. I was amazed to find a new book that I loved so much, and then just as amazed when we listened to Judith Ivey’s—Google her; her face will be familiar—captivating reading: We listened to it in one shot, during a drive upstate, and the three of us were completely rapt (Jamie even got honest-to-goodness goosebumps at the end). Ages 5 and up — be warned, there is a heart-wrenching child death scene in it.
Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Malone!”
Matilda by Roald Dahl Read by: Kate Winslet Play time: 4 hours 19 minutes
I feel like every parent has their go-to bedtime story book—the showstopper, the blue-ribbon winner, the one they do an especially spirited, nuanced, dramatic reading of (mine’s Dr. Seuss’s “What Was I Scared Of?”). But when you hear Kate Winslet’s Matilda, you will be embarassed to have ever had the arrogance to be in the same room as a children’s book, let alone the temerity to think you had a talent for reading one. Granted, Roald Dahl gives her a running start with a broad cast of characters, but then Winslet gives each of them clear, distinct voices, from sweet little Matilda to brave, sputtering, lisping Hortensia to the bellowing, horrible Trunchbull. (Ages 5 or 6 and up. It can be pretty Dickensian underneath the exaggerations.) Line that Jamie and I often say to each other in character, usually apropos of nothing: “Yesss, Misssss Honey.”
Where to download/buy/borrow: You can find most of these audiobooks on CD from Amazon or your local library, or in MP3 file form from iTunes or Audible.com (which is owned by Amazon, and lets you use that log-in; you can buy the recordings outright or get a monthly membership).