Raising a Reader with Audiobooks

In a world where so much is competing for a child’s attention, how do you raise a reader? Pamela Paul, who oversees all book coverage at the New York Times, and Maria Russo, editor of children’s books at the Times, answer this question in their new book, How to Raise a Reader. The excerpt below features their advice on selecting audiobooks for middle-grade readers.

What to Look For: Middle-Grade Audiobooks

All Ears

Audiobooks, particularly on car rides, make it easy for children and adults of different ages to participate in the enjoyment of a shared story. Certain classic and contemporary favorites, such as Stuart Little or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets or any Percy Jackson book, can sweep aside the occasional protests of suddenly snooty older tween and teen listeners (“I remember this!” “I used to love this book!”), all the while raising the bar for younger readers, who will be rapt by what their older siblings like. At the very least, these audiobooks will hit a massive sweet spot for one child in the car while pleasantly diverting everyone else.

Captive Audience

Take advantage of the fact that when you’re in the car traveling with kids, they have nowhere else to go. It allows you the chance to expose your kids to something they might otherwise resist, whether it’s a collection of Greek myths or Norwegian folktales. And if one child simply refuses to participate, she can always pop in a pair of earbuds and listen to her own story while the rest of the group enjoys what’s playing through the car speakers.

Solo Listening

Many children have access to a digital device with earbuds and already listen to music and podcasts on their own. Why not let them add audiobooks to the mix? Many books on audio are low-cost, and you might even consider allowing her to get her own subscription (or access to a family subscription) through a digital audiobook service. This will give her the freedom to choose what she listens to and allow her the choice of immersing herself in books just as she does with her favorite music, whether she’s walking to school, going for a run, or sitting in the backseat of a car.

Free–or Close to It

Most libraries have great collections of audio discs as well as downloadable options. Also, many great stories are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free or low cost online. With little to no financial investment, you can easily start a story and abandon it halfway through if it doesn’t suit your tastes.

From the Horse’s Mouth

Not every author excels at reading out loud, so if a publisher has made the author of the book the narrator, it’s because he’s good at it. Who better to hear from than the person who wrote the book? The author knows exactly what the evil troll sounds like.

Star Power–or Not

Some actors are brilliant at reading audiobooks: Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Kate Winslet, and Jim Dale are among them. Other stars are far better suited to the screen. Rather than immediately select a reading from a favorite actor, listen to a snippet online before you buy a disc or download.


As readers, we all have the occasional craving to revisit a world we’ve loved–it’s like checking back in with an old friend–and audio is an especially great way to enjoy a story for a second or a sixtieth time. Kids get a lot out of reconsidering books even two or three years after they first read them, because they’ve inevitably changed a lot in that time and can note how their reactions are different this time. And it’s an easy lift–any 11-year-old who spaces out listening to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will easily be able to resume wherever he checks back in.

Be Wary Of

Gratuitous Sound Effects

Sometimes, sounds can be employed to useful effect, but other times, it’s just a whole lot of noise. Dr. Seuss does not need a lot of bells and whistles with the right narration. If you can, listen to a snippet online first.

Unwanted Abridgments

Most kids want the full story. Of course, in certain cases, really long books or classic tales for all ages are better in abridged formats, depending on the audience. The fact that it’s abridged should be on the front, but read the fine print front and back to be sure you’re not getting a shorter version by accident.

Too Many Characters

Wait, who are we talking about again? Is this the villain or the hero’s grandfather? Unfamiliar stories with lots of characters can be hard to track on audio–even more so than in a book–because it’s not as easy to rewind to a precise spot the way you can reread the last paragraph in a book.

Our Audiobook Picks for Families

[audiobook title=”Charlotte’s Web” isbn=”9780553754490″ author=”E. B. White” narrator=”E. B. White”]This may be the best audiobook of all time for the entire family. White’s East Coast drawl seems to hardly exist anymore–and it’s the perfect vehicle for this story. His telling is devoid of silliness or sentimentality. And if you don’t get moist-eyed hearing his soft “goodbyes” as each baby spider takes flight near the end, you’re made of sterner stuff than we are.[/audiobook]

[audiobook title=”Harry Potter” isbn=”9781781102633″ author=”J. K. Rowling” narrator=”Jim Dale or Stephen Fry”]Fights have broken out over which audio version is better, the American Dale or the British Fry. Let’s settle it now: They are both great. Enjoy one or the other or alternate both and let your children compare.[/audiobook]

[audiobook title=”My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland” isbn=”9781518928024″ author=”Ruth Stiles Gannett” narrator=”Robert Sevra”]These classic adventure stories still work as well as they did when the first one came out in 1948, winning a Newbery Honor, and Sevra’s narration is smooth and soothing, making this book work equally well for kids as young as 5 and as old as 12.[/audiobook]

[audiobook title=”The Roald Dahl Audio Collection” isbn=”9781101631010″ author=”Roald Dahl” narrator=”Roald Dahl”]Even if you’re already a die-hard Roald Dahl fan in print, you’ll appreciate him all the more when you hear him read his own stories. There are many versions of his books on audio, but none are as wonderful as Dahl reading from The Roald Dahl Audio Collection. One caveat: The stories are sadly abridged in these versions. They are worth it anyway for the narrator, who reels off his gleefully nasty character descriptions and caustic dialogue in his distinctive Nordic-inflected British accent.[/audiobook]

[audiobook title=”Tales from the Odyssey” isbn=”9780060835125″ author=”Mary Pope Osborne” narrator=”James Simmons”]For some young readers, there is simply never enough Greek mythology. Why not bring the gods into yet another format? This simplified audio version of Homer’s tale is a fine introduction for young children and tweens interested in Greek gods and heroes, and a gift for adults keen to brush up–painlessly–on the ancient masterpiece.[/audiobook]

Excerpted from How to Raise A Reader by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, Workman Publishing © 2019. You can find How to Raise A Reader here.

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