I’ve long been a fan of audiobooks: Being stuck in traffic, making dinner, and tidying the house are a lot more entertaining with a skillful narrator reading a captivating book aloud. Children go through stages where their listening comprehension surpasses their reading levels, making audiobooks an ideal way to enjoy books they can’t yet read independently. Fortunately, things have come a long way since the days when we had to get cassettes and CDs from our local libraries. Being able to borrow or purchase digital books and download them without leaving home still gives my book nerd’s heart a little thrill. Check out these middle-grade titles that were a particular joy to listen to this year.
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day, narrated by Kimberly Woods (audio: HarperAudio; print: Heartdrum, Jan. 5): Woods’ sweet, authentically childlike delivery perfectly complements this touching story of a Native (Makah/Piscataway) girl in Seattle who feels anxious and demoralized after an injury forces her to quit ballet. Who is she without dance? How can she cope with seeing her ballet friends carry on pursuing their dreams?
Root Magic by Eden Royce, narrated by Imani Parks (audio: HarperAudio; print: Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, Jan. 5): The soft, mellow style Parks uses for her narration perfectly evokes the 1960s rural South Carolina Gullah Geechee community setting and grounds this memorable tale of family love and deep tradition. The relationship storyline is intertwined with supernatural elements including conjure magic and a mysterious doll.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold, narrated by the author (audio: HMH Audio; print: Versify/HMH, Feb. 2): Arnold, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, brings oodles of flavor to her reading of her novel about a Haitian girl who struggles to adapt to her new life in Brooklyn. Arnold fully expresses the humor and magic of this story that involves a bargain with a crafty witch and the support of two new friends, one human and one rodent.
Amina's Song by Hena Khan, narrated by Soneela Nankani (audio: Simon and Schuster Audio; print: Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster, March 9): Fittingly for a book about a girl who is a gifted singer, Nankani’s smooth, pleasant tones draw listeners into this story, the companion to Amina’s Voice (2017). A summer trip to Pakistan followed by a middle school assignment lead Amina to wrestle with questions of identity and clear self-expression.
War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman, narrated by Emma Galvin (audio: Listening Library; print: Knopf, April 6): The slightly rough edges of Galvin’s voice and her matter-of-fact style adroitly capture Irish American Millie’s tough exterior—behind which lurk grief, pain, and fear. Her best friend moved away, her beloved grandmother died, her sister is a pest, and World War II looms. It’s a lot for a kid to deal with, but Millie persists.
Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood edited by Kwame Mbalia, narrated by Amir Abdullah and Taj Leahy (audio: Listening Library; print: Delacorte, Aug. 3): Abdullah and Leahy share narratorial duties for this collection of stories that brings together contributions from a range of noted Black male and nonbinary authors. Each entry is uplifting and positive, and the readers’ upbeat, energized approach emphasizes their celebratory nature.
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman, narrated by the author (audio: Listening Library; print: Nancy Paulsen Books, Sept. 7): Venkatraman does an excellent job of reading her own work, her straightforward, sincere delivery vividly conveying the innocence and emotional vulnerability of a boy who has only known a life spent in jail with his mother in Chennai, India. Listeners will be swept along with Kabir and Rani, the first new friend he makes as he ventures out into the intimidating world.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.