Lifestyle

American children’s books award winners

In the bookstore where I work, the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winners of the major American children’s book awards are an exciting time for those of us working in the kids’ section.

While I gladly participate in this tradition and admire the shiny gold and silver stickers that appear on the covers of the winning picture book, middle-grade and young adult titles, I have to admit that this year my attention wandered to a different category of books for children. On the night of Jan. 25, I was waiting for the Odyssey Award.

Created in 2007 and first awarded in 2008, the Odyssey Award identifies the best English language audiobooks produced in the United States for children and young adults. The award recognizes the growing demand for audiobooks and the role that audiobooks play in the advancement of literacy.

Audiobooks are worthy of evaluation and critique. And if producers are motivated by this new award, kids and teens who enjoy listening to books have a lot to look forward to.

While I wait for a copy of this year’s winner, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” written and performed by Sherman Alexie, to become available at my library, I want to share with you some of my current favorites, most of which were produced before the conception of the Odyssey Award.

The first teen audiobook to really make me sit up and take note was E. Lockhart’s “The Boyfriend List,” read by Mandy Siegfried. It matters that Lockhart’s novel — in which 15-year-old Ruby Oliver loses her boyfriend and her best friend, and has to figure out how to live without them — is well-written. Ruby’s narrative is frantic and funny, anguished and artful, and peppered with revealing asides.

In an audiobook, the quality of the performance is just as important as the quality of the writing, and Mandy Siegfried works wonders. She combines theatrical maturity with an authentic teen inflection, making us believe that she really is Ruby. Siegfried is a name that you learn to look for. I count her performance of “Heartbeat,” a middle-grade novel by Sharon Creech, among her best.

I also fell head over heels for Natalie Moore’s performance of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s young adult novel, “Dairy Queen,” which follows the ups and downs of DJ Schwenk’s life in rural Wisconsin as she works to keep the family farm in business, develops a crush on one of her school’s star athletes, and asserts herself by trying out for the football team.

It is easy to like this story. The novel has a lot of what teens look for in realistic fiction — a character who actively confronts her problems, overcomes obstacles and, in the end, succeeds in love. What sets this audiobook apart is Moore’s excellent reading.

As a Northwesterner, I was mesmerized by Moore’s Midwestern accent, which I know that my silent reading voice — had I read the book to myself — would never have provided. Moore skillfully draws listeners into the center of the story, giving us an aural experience of DJ’s world.

I listen to audiobooks when I am cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and when I run. If I become particularly enamored with an audiobook, I tend to create excuses to listen to it.

When I listened to “The Wednesday Wars,” by Gary D. Schmidt and read by Joel Johnstone, my apartment was cleaner than it has ever been. My fingers wrinkled in soapy dishwater because I lingered over the sink. I had to find new running routes to take me farther afield. Johnstone is a perfect match for Schmidt’s story about seventh-grader Holling Hoodhood, a boy humorously plagued by bothersome teachers, classmates with unreasonable demands and the potential embarrassments of performing in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Set in 1967, when everyone had a lot to worry about, Schmidt deftly juxtaposes laughable and lamentable moments, a balance that Johnstone supports in every aspect of his performance, delivering each line with exactly the humor and sympathy that it demands.

I tend to be more open-minded in selecting audiobooks than when I am choosing physical books to read. The broadening of my literary horizons has led me to such gems as Derek Landy’s “Skullduggery Pleasant,” winner of a 2008 Odyssey Honor.

Performer Rupert Degas single-handedly narrates a story packed with an extensive cast of human and supernatural characters, giving each one a distinct voice.

When 12-year-old Stephanie Edgely teams up with Skullduggery — a living skeleton and detective extraordinaire — to track down her uncle’s murderer, she can’t imagine the dangers she faces. Degas takes a novel dense with magic, mayhem, action and mystery, terrible villains and edge-of-your-seat suspense, and intensifies the whole experience with a dramatic, varied reading. This is an excellent audiobook.

It might take some time before I can convince some of my coworkers to add the Odyssey Award to our ballot each January. The way things are going technologically, I suspect that it will happen someday. In the meantime, I will be listening, washing lots of dishes and trying, all the while, to pick a winner.

Galen Longstreth is an MFA student at Vermont College. She received a master’s in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught kindergarten for five years. She is a 1994 graduate of Mercer Island High School. She can be reached at glongstr@gmail.com.

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