The Audio Time Machine

Book Links: June/July 2002 (v.11, no.6)

by Deborah Locke

While driving home from work, enthralled by Elizabeth Alder's marvelous story of the Middle Ages,
The King's Shadow, it occurred to me that despite our glittering new technologies--our cell phones, e-books, and I-Macs--time travel is still possible only through literature. An inspired narrator can carry a listener back in time and magically let her or him "walk in another's makasins."

Today's crop of historical novels offers a more realistic depiction of a greater diversity of experiences than ever before. These stories provide a rich context for learning, enhanced through skillful oral interpretation. In the social studies classroom, even the most indifferent student can be captivated by the power of the human story. Exemplary audiobooks can enhance learning and help teachers and students to replace memorization with meaning.

We now know that involving multiple senses increases learning and retention. Hearing these powerful stories read aloud engages the student more fully in the historical period evoked. No child who hears Lynne Thigpen portray the title character in Gary Paulsen's
Sarny will ever forget the indignities and suffering of slavery. Even the sense of smell is evoked by the vividly realistic scenes of life in the Middle Ages depicted in
The Midwife's Apprentice,
Matilda Bone, and
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Earthy realism leavened with humor enlivens these novels of midwives, bonesetters, and noblewomen, rendering them unforgettable and balancing the more conventional, romantic image of medieval knights and castles.

Shared listening can unify a class of students with unequal skills. Poor readers and strong readers alike can share the battlefield experiences of Charley Goddard in Gary Paulsen's
Soldier's Heart, or Birdy's horror at witnessing a public execution in
Catherine, Called Birdy. A student whose reading comprehension skills are weak can gain a more sophisticated understanding of historical events through the audio format.

Experimentation with form marks a number of recent titles. Karen Hesse uses poetry in
Out of the Dust to dramatize the impact of the Depression on one girl and her family. The title character in
Catherine, Called Birdy begins a journal in the year 1290. Paul Fleischman employs 16 different voices in
Bull Run to express the devastating impact of a single battle on the lives of so many people. The sense of immediacy and intimacy that these techniques add is enhanced by audio interpretation, which makes these unique stories accessible to young people for whom the writing style might prove challenging. Attention to representing more diverse cultural experience is reflected in recent audio titles, as well. Louise Erdrich's
The Birchbark House, set in the mid-1800s, is rich in the details of life of the Ojibwa people.
The Circuit, based on author Francisco Jiménez's own childhood experiences, is narrated by Adrian Vargas, whose accurate pronunciation of Spanish words and Hispanic names lends authenticity and color to this very personal story of Mexican migrant farmworkers.

A dependable source for many historical fiction titles, especially for Newbery Medal winners, is Recorded Books. Audio Bookshelf is making a deliberate effort to publish titles that enrich the school curriculum, and both publishers provide excellent support materials and suggestions for integrating audiobooks in the classroom. Listening Library also publishes high-quality audiobook versions of award-winning children's titles.

The Birchbark House. By Louise Erdrich. Read by Nicolle Littrell. Audio Bookshelf. 1999. 4 cassettes (6 hrs.), $34.95 (1-883332-79-6).

Gr. 4-up. Erdrich's vital and dramatic novel tells about a year in the life of a young Ojibwa girl in the mid-1800s, when smallpox brings death and devastation to her village.

Bull Run. By Paul Fleischman. Read by multiple narrators, including the author. Audio Bookshelf. 1993. 2 cassettes (2 hrs.), $17.95 (1-883332-37-0). Also available from Recorded Books, read by multiple narrators. 1996. 2 cassettes (2 hrs.), $19 (0-7887-0432-X).

Gr. 5-up. Sixteen voices-the voices of the common soldiers, their leaders, their families, their comrades, North/South, white/black, adult/child-weave an intimate tapestry of the first battle of the Civil War.

Catherine, Called Birdy. By Karen Cushman. Read by Jenny Sterlin. Recorded Books. 1994. 5 cassettes (6½ hrs.), $44 (0-7887-0687-X).

Gr. 6-9. As recounted through her irreverent daily journal entries, a stubborn and spirited young noblewoman resists both her mother's efforts to turn her into a lady and her father's desire to make a good marriage for her that will line his own pocket.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. By Francisco Jiménez. Read by Adrian Vargas. Audio Bookshelf. 1997. 2 cassettes (3 hrs.), $21.95 (1-883332-44-3); Spanish edition, 4 cassettes (3½ hrs.), $24.95 (1-883332-45-1).

Gr. 5-up. Jiménez's stories in
The Circuit and its sequel,
Breaking Through (Houghton, 2001), are based on his own childhood experiences growing up in a family of Mexican migrant workers.

The King's Shadow. By Elizabeth Alder. Read by Ron Keith. Recorded Books. 1995. 7 cassettes (9¼ hrs.), $60 (0-7887-1782-0).

Gr. 7-up. Evyn's dreams of becoming a traveling storyteller are shattered when his tongue is cut out in a violent act of revenge. Instead, Evyn ends up in the unlikely position of personal squire to Harold, the last of the Saxon kings.

Matilda Bone. By Karen Cushman. Read by Janet McTeer. Listening Library. 2000. 3 cassettes (4 hrs.), $22 (0-8072-8737-7).

Gr. 6-8. Set in the medical quarter of a medieval English village, this novel tells the story of Matilda. Raised by a priest, she now serves as assistant to Red Peg the Bonesetter.

The Midwife's Apprentice. By Karen Cushman. Read by Jenny Sterlin. Recorded Books. 1995. 2 cassettes (2¾ hrs.), $19 (0-7887-1577-6).

Gr. 7-12. When a midwife finds a half-starved girl hiding in a dung heap, she takes her home and teaches her the midwife's craft.

Nightjohn. By Gary Paulsen. Read by Michele-Denise Woods. Recorded Books. 1993. 2 cassettes (1½ hrs.), $19 (1-55690-854-7).

Gr. 7-up. Sarny, a 12-year-old plantation slave, tells the sometimes brutal story of Nightjohn, a fellow slave who risked beatings and death to teach other slaves to read.

Out of the Dust. By Karen Hesse. Read by Marika Mashburn. Listening Library. 2000. 2 cassettes (2¼ hrs.), $23 (0-8072-8012-7).

Gr. 5-8. Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo, growing up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression, tells of heart-wrenching tragedy and loss in her family over the course of a year.

Sarny: A Life Remembered. By Gary Paulsen. Read by Lynne Thigpen. Recorded Books. 1997. 3 cassettes (4¼ hrs.), $27 (0-7887-2082-1).

Gr. 7-up. In this sequel to
Nightjohn, Sarny searches for her children-tragically sold just before Emancipation-instead of traveling north with other newly freed slaves.

Soldier's Heart: Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers. By Gary Paulsen. Read by George Wendt. Listening Library. 1999. 2 cassettes (1¾ hrs.), $23 (0-8072-8300-2).

Gr. 5-8. Eager to enlist, 15-year-old Charley has a change of heart after experiencing both the physical horrors and the mental anguish of Civil War combat.

Web Connections

Rich resources for integrating audiobooks into the classroom can be found at these Web sites:

  • In addition to a free online newsletter and grant-seeking tips, Audio Bookshelf's Web site at includes many suggestions for learning with audiobooks. Educators of the Month are also featured, sharing their tips and techniques for integrating audiobooks.
  • Books on Tape's Web site at lists all Listening Library titles and allows users to search for titles by age and genre.
  • Click on the School tab at the Recorded Books Web site at to find reading and teaching tools for your classroom, to subscribe to its free "School News," or to search for titles by theme.

Deborah Locke is a librarian at Westbrook High School in Westbrook, Maine.