Listen My Children and You Shall Hear: Audio Books for Young Adults
Marjorie M. Kaiser, Editor
Welcome to a column about non-print young adult literature and materials about that literature. In this column, I hope to share with you periodically information, and resources for those students and teachers who might be interested in Audio books, CD ROMS, films and other visual materials that do not require the reading of print. In addition, I hope to share my own relevant personal and professional insights and experiences that you may find enlightening.
In this first column, I'd like to let you in on how the column came about. A few months ago before our current editor took over her duties, I wrote to the then Clip and File book review editor about whether ALAN Review had ever included any focus - reviews, articles, even advertisements - on Audio books for young adults. As a charter member of ALAN, I didn't think I'd ever seen anything, but then I hadn't always been interested in such materials. Gary Salvner wrote me back and said, "no, not really." He suggested that perhaps I might like to do something on this subject. Then when our new editor took over, I wrote to her, inquiring. Through our discussions, then, it was decided that the Review would offer a sometime column on nonprint material on or about literature for young adults.
As a reader and teacher of more years than I care to mention, until recently I had not experienced a whole book on tape. Oh, yes, I had heard poetry, maybe a short story now and then, and a few old radio classics that someone had given me as a gift one year at Christmas. You know, Jack Benny, that sort of thing. But although I realized that some of my friends who did considerable driving, had long been listening to novels and even professional books of nonfiction on tape in their cars, since I was not taking many long automobile trips, I simply had never done this. I knew that one could check out Audio books at the public library and that some school libraries had collections (usually only those schools that served numbers of blind and visually impaired students.) Like many of my colleagues, students, and friends, I had heard Michigan's Dick Costell read (one-half hour at a time) a new book on public radio. Still I was not a devoted listener.
Then as happens so often, a situation struck me personally that demonstrated the awesome value of recorded books. I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that eventually necessitated surgery. For about a year, I suffered almost total inability to read books unless I viewed the print under a magnification machine. Therefore, I looked into recorded books. Friends presented me with some tapes as gifts, and I checked out some from the local public library and rented several from Recorded Books, Inc. Over that time period, I re-discovered the joy of listening to a fine reader read a good book. I listened to adult novels by Ann Tyler, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley, even Garrison Keillor. I listened to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Up Island, Songs in Ordinary Time, many others. I enjoyed the magnificent classic reading of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Cats. I recalled how lovely it is to be totally caught up yet slowed down by a well-written and well-read tale.
Over the years as a professional, I came to be a very fast reader, literally racing through my journals to "keep up." Of course, I read novels more slowly and poetry even more slowly, but still my pace in keeping up with journals and papers seemed to have an impact on the way I read everything. I had little time to loll over words, to relish the choice image or phrase. Being forced to listen to recorded books re-awoke this appreciation. I could not hurry the readers along. I went at their pace. It was virtually a new reading experience, like nothing I had known since childhood.
Being so focused on my own need, my own daily survival and thoughts of my future, it did not occur to me during this year or so to look into books for young adults on tape until that struggle to adapt to my own impaired vision was drawing to a conclusion. I believe it is our human nature to feel more keenly when we are personally affected by a problem, but once I began to think of the great joy I was finding in listening to excellent readers on a regular basis, it naturally occurred to me to consider my professional arena and to explore needs and applications of Audio books for students. Was their use restricted to classrooms serving students with severe visual impairment? Did other teachers make use of them in regular classrooms? If so, how did they use them? Did audio materials play a major role in the curriculum? Or was the use of tapes just a supplement?
In talking with numerous teachers in the Louisville area I discovered the variety of uses I had imagined. I explored the local free public library and its branches to see what their holdings were like, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of books on tape, including a substantial collection of classic books for young people and adults as well as contemporary adult and young adult books. Librarians told me that there is consistently a great demand for the contemporary books, necessitating holding multiple copies and usually a long waiting list for the most popular books. Apparently, the interest among the general population has grown considerably in the last few years. Thus, more library funds are being designated for books on tape than ever before.
Those teachers who work with visually impaired or blind students or special needs students with other disabilities are well aware of the materials available to them and their students through the Library of Congress. These materials, "talking books" and cassette machines, come to students through public library or school facilities. A substantial catalog is available in the same manner. A special player is necessary for these tapes and will be provided by the library also. Unfortunately, the young adult literature selections available are limited, and it sometimes takes weeks to receive the tapes. Still, this is a totally free option for qualified students who need access to books at home.
Recorded Books, Inc., on the other hand, offers a broad range of selections appropriate for K-12 students and their teachers. Recorded Books catalog includes plenty of choices of unabridged "classic" and contemporary young adult Audio books, including novels, poetry collections, short story collections, Shakespeare's plays, non-fiction, and so forth for the regular English language arts or reading classroom. In addition, special collections are made available for ESL classrooms as well as special overlays, abridged versions, and other adaptations for special needs readers. Recorded Books, Inc. has invested significantly in producing materials to meet the needs of students across the spectrum. This company aims to make appropriate fine literature accessible to all students, not just those who can see the words or are able to turn the pages.
Now for the cost. While purchase prices vary, primarily based on length of the book, many young adult books are in the $19 - $26 range. Accompanied by a hardbound copy of the book, the price will increase an average of $5. So The Watsons Go to Birmingham goes for $23, Hatchet for $24 and Weetzie Bat and The Whipping Boy for $19. Some special productions may cost as much as $45-50. Ordering from Recorded Books, Inc. is simple and delivery is fast. To request a catalog, published 4 times a year with new release updates in between. Visit the web site ( http://www.recordedbooks.com ) or call 1-800-638-1304. A few other companies are putting out taped versions of young adult literature, sometimes available in stories or through catalogs, but the ones teachers have shared with me seem not as well produced or packaged as Recorded Books counterparts.
So apart from the very real needs of students with disabilities and simple convenience for travelers, I asked myself, "Why are recorded books are so appealing to so many people?" I wondered if my response was similar to that of other listeners. I wondered how the experiences of reading and listening differed for teachers. I decided to interview a couple of excellent high school teachers, who are not used to listening to books on tape themselves, to do a little research with me.
I asked one teacher to listen to the audio version of a recent Recorded Books release for young adults and the other to just read the book as she normally would. I didn't tell them why I wanted them to do this except to let me know whether they thought the book might be appropriate for their classroom libraries or as a choice book for class or small group discussion in with their high school freshmen or sophomores.
The book I chose was the 1998 John H. Ritter novel, Choosing Up Sides . This first novel by Ritter, set in small town Ohio in the 1920s, is a baseball story, yet it is far more than that. Like the best so-called sports novels of Robert Lipsyte, Chris Crutcher, or Walter Dean Myers, this novel goes well beyond the issues involved in a game to address major adolescent themes of identity and individuation, clashing religious values, and major inter-generational conflict, conflict heightened by an abusive father. Told through the eyes of 13-year-old Luke, the story offers an authentic, suspenseful, and at times frightening plot line and excellent, realistic characterization.
After I read the book and listened to the taped version, I scheduled a dialogue with my two teachers, the reader and the listener, about their impressions of this quality novel. Both the reader and the listener had high praise for the novel. Both teachers were absorbed by the plot, convinced by the characterization, and impressed with the style and voice.
The teacher who had just listened to the taped version said, "I felt swept along by the voice of the narrator, and I found it thoroughly appropriate to a 13-year old rural kid in the 20s. This professional reader shaped my understanding of Luke and his friends as well as his father and uncle, the mature adults in the book."
In speaking of the effectiveness of the description in the novel, she added, "The reading helped me see the elements of the setting better than I might have if I'd been reading the words myself." Saying this, she slipped a tape into the recorder, and we listened for about 20 minutes.
"No way," exclaimed Robin, the reader. "He just ruined my reading for me. I had done all that character-building in my head, all that image-creation. I had my own idea of what Luke and all the others looked like, sounded like, walked like, hit the ball, you know, and so forth."
"I can see that," replied Jennifer. "Sort of like when you read a book and then go see the movie version. Sometimes it ruins the book for you because you had created everything in your mind, and then the film-make goes and ruins it, you know, like gives you his reading." Robin agreed that the analogy was appropriate.
"But I really like the tape," said Jennifer, "the way the reader brings the whole thing to life, really much better than I can when I read aloud to my classes, especially when I'm having to keep my eye on everyone in the room. I sometimes even skip over parts. It's not that he's being real dramatic or acting it out or anything. It's just a really good reading." Still she pondered as to what the need might be for taped books in her classroom.
"I think it would be nice to have the whole class listen to one of these books on tape together, maybe 15 or so minutes at a time." I reminded the two teachers that in general, these young adult books on tape run between 2 and 3 2-sided tape cassettes per book (typically 4-6 hours.)
"I try to read aloud to my students a lot," said Jennifer, "but my voice really gives out after 3 classes. Then, too, I'm not that great an oral reader. With Choosing Up Sides, for example, I couldn't make my voice sound so much like a 13-year old boy even though I could try."
"Yes, I can see what you mean," added Robin. "But I think it would be good to have ear phones in the classroom, so some of my students who have even minor reading disabilities or visual problems could be listening to a book during our free reading times while the others read their books. It would be nice to have a collection of books on tape in the classroom."
"Sure," said Jennifer, "or if I am teaching a class novel to the whole class, one or two slower students could be listening to the same book on tape. But the problem I see is money. I get most of my classroom library books at 2nd hand book stores, how could I afford Audio books for my classroom?"
"Doesn't your school librarian have a collection, too?"
"Yes, but it isn't up to date. I want to use new releases that the students won't have read or heard before. And they cost money. I know you can rent them, too, but even that is high. It seems rather silly."
And so the conversation turned to writing grant proposals, requesting funds from the school curriculum committee, and submitting order forms to the librarian.
This dialogue with teachers of regular classes convinced me of how useful recorded books could be in ordinary classrooms. Though I came at my interest in audio books out of a personal need, it is easy to be enthusiastic about the rich resource option they provide for classroom teachers. In future columns I hope to review new audio book releases from time to time and also to explore other materials such as CD ROMs, materials for oral work, and some visual material. If you know of material you would like to have reviewed in this column or issues you would like to have explored, please write to me in care of the editor.
Marjorie Kaiser is a professor of English Education at the University of Louisville, where she created the Teaching Adolescent Readers course, which she has taught for over 16 years. She has also served as Director of the Louisville Writing Project for 16 years, and has edited 2 NCTE books, co-authored a composition text, and published articles and reviews in English Journal, The ALAN Review, and other journals, as well .
Reference Citation: Kaiser, Marjorie M. (1999) "Listen My Children and You Shall Hear: Audio Books for Young Adults. The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp18-20.