In addition to identifying outstanding young adult literature and great graphic novels (plus lots of other lists of superior titles of various sorts), YALSA also publishes a yearly list of amazing audiobooks. But what makes an audiobook amazing? I was one of the librarians who helped create the most recent list, and I’d like to highlight a few of our top ten titles and explain what it was for me that made them stand out from the crowd.
Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me? (written by Louise Rennison and read by Stina Nielson) and The Wake of the Lorelei Lee (written by L.A. Meyer and read by Katherine Kellgren): Both of these were a lot of fun to listen to and while they’re very different stories (in the first, Georgia deals in her own distinctive way with the day-to-day life of a British teen, and in the second, Jacky continues her piratical adventures on the high seas), the thing that made them amazing for me was similar: the narrator becomes the protagonist. Both Nielson and Kellgren have an incredible command of spoken language, matching their pitch and pacing and accents perfectly to the situation in which their characters find themselves. While I was listening to both of these, I felt so swept up in what was happening, so immersed in the story, that I almost forgot I was listening to an audiobook. With such a natural (although very enthusiastic!) performance, it’s really storytelling rather than reading.
Beauty Queens (written and read by Libba Bray): we’ve previously talked about how authors narrating their own audiobooks can be a mixed bag, but this is one case where it absolutely works. Libba Bray brings the perfect level of silliness and camp to this story. The commercials between chapters, which in the book are only described with text, come alive in the audiobook with additional music and sound effects. But the icing on the cake are the little extra embellishments that Bray has added like the transitions from one disc to another, which she does in Tiara’s voice with a little aside about the disc number. (So, for example, at the start of the 11th disc, Tiara says, “Beauty Queens, disc 11–oh no, I ran out of fingers!”) Bray reading her own work gives her that inside knowledge of the characters and the universe she’s created that let her interpret and add in a way that elevates this audiobook beyond just a performance of the text.
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous (written by Georgia Bragg and read by L.J. Ganser): Translating nonfiction to an audio format can be tricky, since nonfiction so often relies on graphical matter (photographs, illustrations, charts, diagrams, maps, and so forth). Here, though, Ganser handles the lists at the end of each chapter well: you can tell from his tone and inflection that he’s departed from the description of some famous person’s death and proceeded on to a list of medical treatments or important steps in leeching. And those descriptions of the illnesses, suffering, and death of the nineteen famous people included in the book are over-the-top, but it’s a great match with the subject: Ganser absolutely revels in the grossness of what he’s telling you. He understands the appeal of the text and conveys that vocally really well.
The Marbury Lens (written by Andrew Smith and read by Mark Boyett): This is where things get tricky. You can think an audiobook is amazing even if you hate listening to it. I felt really uncomfortable through this entire audiobook, but it was still one of the best ones I listened to all year. During our deliberation, we kept returning to these visceral reactions we had to the narration. The Marbury Lens is less about the character or the plot and more about the mood that the story sets–it gets inside your head and is creepy and scary and makes your skin crawl–which is exactly the mood that Boyett conveys with his narration. His reading is often quiet and his pacing deliberate, which makes you sit still and listen closer and realize how disturbing the book really is. We described the recording as “haunting,” and certain lines and repeated phrases will definitely stay with you once you’re done listening.
Have you listened to an audiobook recently that you thought was amazing? Be sure to nominate it for consideration on next year’s list!
— Gretchen Kolderup, currently reading Shelter by Harlan Coben
YALSA members: interested in learning more about serving on a selection committee? Check out my post on being on Amazing Audiobooks.
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