Authentic Listening Experiences: Multicultural Audiobooks

by Junko Yokota and Miriam Martinez

Audiobooks have evolved from straightforward oral readings to full-scale dramatic presentations that can include music, sophisticated sound effects, and a full cast of characters. Listeners, teachers, and librarians will want to consider a variety of qualities in choosing or recommending audiobooks, especially when it comes to multicultural listening experiences, which call for cultural authenticity in how the stories are read.

Young readers tend to choose books that feel familiar to them—ones in which they can readily imagine the characters and experience situations that they understand. With books that are set in a different place, are written in a different dialect, or have characters whose lives are unfamiliar, it often takes an adult to recommend the book, mediate the experience, and scaffold it so that comprehension becomes attainable.

The audiobook narrator plays a role similar to that of a translator of a book from one language to another. A good translator can make a big difference in the reading experience through word choice and passage interpretation; likewise, the audiobook narrator helps mediate the story for the listener by selecting what tone to take, what types of voices to give to characters, what to emphasize, and how to engage the listener.

Multicultural audiobooks are particularly important in classrooms because
teachers sometimes express a lack of confidence in reading these books aloud. They may feel uncomfortable reading unfamiliar words in a foreign language or hesitate to readaloud books in which the rhythm of the text feels unfamiliar when spoken.

Frequently we cite the need to bring into the classroom multicultural literature that serves as both mirrors (books that reflect the exper-iences and backgrounds ofreaders) and windows (books that open readers’ eyes to new and unfamiliar stories). We believe that the multicultural listening experience has the same type of power. Listeners may find that they hear voices as familiar as those of their mothers and grandmothers, or the story may be as intriguingly foreign as a tale a storyteller from a different land might narrate.

African American Audiobooks

Bud, Not Buddy. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Read by James Avery. 2000. Listening Library. 3 cassettes (5¼ hrs.), $30 (0-8072-8209-X); 5 CDs, $40 (0-8072-1045-5).

Gr. 4–up. In this Depression-era historical title, 10-year-old Bud lives in an orphanage, but is sure that if he could just find his long-lost father, he would have a home. Avery’s expert reading is upbeat and well matched to the tone of the book. His characterizations are memorable, and the inclusion of jazz music adds to the listening experience.

Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Read by J. D. Jackson. 2003. Recorded Books. 1 cassette (¼ hr.), $11 (1-4025-3949-5).

Gr. 4–up. Lonnie Collins Motion—dubbed “Locomotion” by his mother—is orphaned in a tragic fire. To add to his sense of loss, he is sent to a foster home after a family decides to adopt his only sister but not him. When his teacher assigns keeping a poetry journal, Lonnie finally finds an outlet for his emotions as he works past his life’s tragedies to a future of hope.

Miracle’s Boys. By Jacqueline Woodson. Read by Dulé Hill. 2001. Listening Library. 2 cassettes (2½ hrs.), $23 (0-8072-0525-7).

Gr. 7–up. Their African American father drowns in an accident, their Latin American mother dies of diabetes, and Ty’ree gives up a college scholarship to MIT to stay home and try to keep his family together. Charlie is hardened from his recent return after years in a juvenile correctional facility, and narrator Lafayette is a preteen who struggles with guilt over his mother’s death and anxiety about his brothers. While urban dangers loom, the brothers learn to survive—together—and still value the changed definition of family.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. By Mildred Taylor. Read by Lynne Thigpen. 2001. Listening Library. 6 cassettes (7½ hrs.), $40 (0-8072-0622-9); 6 CDs, $45 (0-8072-1608-9).

The Land.
By Mildred Taylor. Read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. 2002. Listening Library. 7 cassettes (11 hrs.), $50 (0-8072-0619-9); 9 CDs, $60 (0-8072- 1768-9).

Gr. 7–up. These two installments in the Logan family saga portray the family’s struggles against racism as African American landowners. Thigpen’s reading of
Roll of Thunder offers listeners access to a historical time period and a story that will be appreciated by many. Santiago-Hudson’s accomplished reading of prequel
The Land reflects the story’s setting in Georgia during the post–Civil War era.

The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. By Julius Lester. Read by the author.
1999. Recorded Books. 3 cassettes (3½ hrs.), $28 (0-7887-5362-2); 4 CDs, $39 (0-7887-9861-8).

Gr. 3–up. Brer Rabbit is a trickster character who constantly seeks to outwit those around him in these humorous tales. Author and narrator Julius Lester engages listeners with his original storytelling style as he tells these authentic tales with African American roots. Also see Lester’s audiobook recordings of
More Tales of Uncle Remus (Recorded Books, 2002) and
The Last Tales of Uncle Remus (Recorded Books, 2003).

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. By Christopher Paul Curtis.
Read by LeVar Burton. 1996. Listening Library. 4 cassettes (5 hrs.), $32 (0-8072-8334-7); 4 CDs, $35 (0-8072-1777-8).

Gr. 3–up. From the hilarious sibling rivalry stories of the “weird Watsons” to the startling and devastating church bombing of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, Curtis writes an engaging family story. Characterization is richly portrayed so that listeners know and care about each person; when the tragedies hit, listeners are outraged and horrified by the injustice of the situations.

Witness. By Karen Hesse. Read by a full cast. 2002. Listening Library. 2 cassettes (2½ hrs.), $23 (0-8072-0593-1).

Gr. 5–up. Eleven characters take turns speaking from various perspectives as they describe how the Ku Klux Klan moved into their small Vermont town in 1924. The full cast recording makes it easier to keep up with which character is speaking, and each voice is effective in conveying the thoughts and feelings for the character with just the right amount of drama. Also included is an interview with Hesse.

Yolonda’s Genius. By Carol Fenner. Read by Novella Nelson. 1997. Listening Library. 4 cassettes (5½ hrs.), $32 (0-8072-0461-7).

Gr. 4–up. After Yolonda’s mother moves the family out of Chicago to get away from crime and drugs, Yolonda can’t seem to find a place for herself in her new town. Further, her little brother Andrew rarely speaks and can hardly read, but Yolonda is convinced that he is a musical genius. Nelson’s rich voice, beautifully paced reading, and use of different voices and authentic African American inflection make for a listening treat. Music accompanies scenes featuring Andrew’s playing.

Asian Audiobooks

Homeless Bird. By Gloria Whelan. Read by Sarita Choudhury. 2001. Listening Library. 2 cassettes (3¼ hrs.), $23 (0-8072-8858-6); 3 CDs, $30 (0-8072-2013-2).

Gr. 5–up. In this contemporary story set in India, 13-year-old Koly’s parents don’t realize the husband they have chosen for her is sickly, and when her dowry is used up by her in-laws as they desperately seek care for their dying son, Koly finds herself abandoned. Choudhury’s reading draws listeners into a story whose setting and circumstances most of us cannot imagine, yet will feel compelled to care about.

A Step from Heaven. By An Na. Read by Jina Oh. 2002. Listening Library. 3 cassettes (4¼ hrs.), $30 (0-8072-0722-5); 4 CDs, $36 (0-8072-2287-9).

Gr. 7–up. Young Ju’s family emigrates from Korea to the United States, convinced that America must be just “a step from heaven.” But their dreams in the land of opportunity are not easily realized, and they endure hardships ranging from typical cultural and generational clashes to problems with an alcoholic father. Oh’s telling makes the story both believable and natural, while giving native pronunciation of Korean words. She also makes believable Ju’s parallel language development and increasing ability to speak English.

Latino Audiobooks

Baseball in April and Other Stories. By Gary Soto. Read by Stephanie Diaz and Miguel Gongora. 2000. Audio Bookshelf. 2 cassettes (2¾ hrs.), $18.95 (1-883332-41-9).

Gr. 5–up. The narrators convey the frustrations, dreams, confusion, and embarrassment of the characters in Soto’s short stories as they take tentative steps toward maturity. Soto uses Spanish words and phrases in the speech of characters with deeper roots in Mexico. In parallel fashion, the narrators use slightly more pronounced accents and infuse the speech of those same characters with a stronger Spanish cadence. The readings are well-paced and capture the humor that marks Soto’s stories.

Boys at Work. By Gary Soto. Read by Robert Ramirez. 1996. Recorded Books. 2 cassettes (2½ hrs.), $19 (0-7887-0678-0).

Gr. 4–up. After Rudy accidentally breaks a bully’s CD player, he and his best friend take on a variety of odd jobs in order to earn money to replace it. Successfully capturing the humor associated with the boys’ attempts to earn money, narrator Ramirez also conveys the anxiety and frustration the protagonists feel as they try in vain to reach their goal. Spanish words and phrases found throughout the text are easily understood given Ramirez’ expressive reading and the rich context in which the author has integrated the Spanish.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. By Francisco Jiménez. Read by Adrian Vargas. 2001. Audio Bookshelf. 2 cassettes (3 hrs.), $21.95 (1-883332-44-3).

Gr. 4–up. As a young child living in Mexico, Jiménez crosses “la frontera” with his family to pursue the dream of a better life. In the United States, the family is soon mired in a cycle of poverty in which so many immigrant families find themselves. Vargas’ Mexican American accent lends authenticity to the story, told from a child’s perspective, as does his flawless reading of the Spanish words and phrases woven throughout the story.

Esperanza Rising. By Pam Muñoz Ryan. Read by Trini Alvarado. 2001. Listening Library. 3 cassettes (4¾ hrs.), $30 (0-8072-8862-4); 4 CDs, $35 (0-8072-1769-7).

Gr. 5–up. Esperanza’s childhood of privilege and pampering takes a sudden change in course when her father’s murder leads to Esperanza’s and her mother’s flight to California. Ryan’s story was inspired by her own grandmother’s life, and the plot includes references to historical events of the 1930s. Alvarado’s voice matches the lyrical storytelling well. The author reads the afterword and explains her inspiration and motivation for writing this story.

Growing Up Cuban in Decatur, Georgia. Told by Carmen Agra Deedy. 1995. Peachtree. 1 cassette (1 hr.), $10.95 (1-56145-060-X).

Gr. 5–up. Storyteller Deedy shares stories of her childhood, youth, and young adulthood, including an early memory of bedtime rituals in Cuba, the confusion of a young child thrust into an English-speaking school, and the excitement of learning English by listening to baseball games on the radio. This delightful collection of stories brings to life the immigrant experience.

The Skirt. By Gary Soto. Read by Eileen Galindo. 1993. Recorded Books. 1 cassette (1 hr.), $10 (1-55690-875-X).

Gr. 3–up. Miata Ramirez is both excited and proud that she will be wearing her mother’s old folklorico skirt when she performs with her dance troupe. But Miata is afraid to face her parents with the truth after she leaves the skirt on the school bus. Galindo’s well-paced narration and carefully nuanced dialogue make for easy listening.

Taking Sides. By Gary Soto. Read by Robert Ramirez. 1999. Recorded Books. 3 cassettes (3¼ hrs.), $29 (0-7887-3516-0).

Gr. 5–up. Following the burglary of their home, Lincoln Mendoza and his mother move from the barrio to the suburbs. As the time for a basketball game between his old school and his new one draws near, Lincoln feels growing confusion about which side he belongs on. Ramirez’s subtle interpretation captures Lincoln’s shifting emotions, and the English dialogue is read with a subtle but authentic Mexican American accent.

Under the Mango Tree: Stories from Spanish Speaking Countries. Told by Elida Guardia Bonet. 1998. Zarati Press. 1 cassette (1¼ hrs.), $12 (0-9663662-0-4).

Gr. 2–up. Bonet’s collection includes familiar folktales, such as “Juan Bobo” and “La Cucharacha,” from Spain and throughout Latin America, as well as original stories from her own childhood. Many Spanish words and phrases are repeated with such frequency that listeners may find they are beginning to pick up bits and pieces of the language. Bonet expresses an appropriately wide range of emotions as she relays her diverse tales.

Junko Yokota is a professor at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.
Miriam Martinez is a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio. They, with Charles Temple and Alice Naylor, are coauthors of the book
Children’s Books in Children’s Hands (Pearson, Allyn & Bacon, 2001).