Summer is a great time for kids, teens and their families to try out a different kind of reading -- listening to audiobooks.
That's because many families hit the road for vacation in the summer, and have more time to listen to audiobooks as they drive along. Summer also can be a time when kids and teens have a bit more time to enjoy audiobooks on their own -- via MP3players, such as iPods, etc.
If you're like some parents, however, you may be distrustful of the literary merits of audiobooks and wonder whether listening to a book could possibly be as educational as reading the print version.
Research shows that listening to a book can be as beneficial as reading a printed book. It's just a different kind of reading, and there are different benefits to listening, compared to reading in the traditional sense.
One important benefit is allowing kids to use their imaginations as they listen to an audiobook. There is no screen to watch. Listening to audiobooks helps kids develop their imaginations and their ability to get along without a screen -- or a printed book -- for a while, at least.
That doesn't mean they have to stay still, though! In fact, listening to audiobooks is a great way to read books while doing other things. Kids can do their chores while listening to a good book, or they can draw, or go for a walk. They also can do nothing but listen, if that's what they prefer.
Audiobooks also highlight the characters of a book. A good audiobook narrator can underline both the quirks and admirable qualities of a character, and really bring the character to life for young listeners.
A third -- and very important -- benefit of audiobooks: They can train a spotlight on the humor inherent in a book. Many times, readers just don't get how truly funny a book is, and a good audiobook narrator can ensure that the comical aspects of a story are front and center for the reader.
More reasons why audiobooks are a good thing for kids and teens? Well, audiobooks allow kids and teens to read above their grade level and be exposed to much more sophisticated vocabulary than they might be able to read on their own.
For struggling readers or non-native English speakers, audiobooks offer a literary lifeline. These readers can combine the audiobooks with the print versions as a way of connecting print and oral learning.
The bottom line, however, is that we all begin with hearing stories told aloud, and audiobooks can be a wonderful way to continue this tradition, even into adulthood. So audiobooks are a good thing for kids and teens (and adults).
The next question: How do we choose the best audiobooks?
The American Library Association (ALA) has a ready answer. The ALA is the organization that bestows the most prestigious awards in children's literature: the Caldecott Medal, given annually to the best-illustrated children's books; and the Newbery Medal, given annually to the best-written children's book.
In 2008, the ALA created an award for the best audiobooks for kids and teens. It's called the Odyssey Award, after "The Odyssey" by Homer. Here's why that name was chosen, according to the ALA: "The Odyssey Award allows us to return to the ancient roots of storytelling, while living in our modern world."
Since 2008, a rotating committee of librarians has worked to select Odyssey winners. They always choose a "gold medal" or top winner; in addition, they usually choose several silver or "runners-up" winners.
The committee has a strict set of criteria to follow, including such things as production quality, sound quality and "excellence in audio interpretation of story, theme or concept."
Odyssey winners can run the gamut of audiobooks for kids and teens, from ages birth through age 18. But the winners are always worth a listen. Check out the website for the Odyssey winners: http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/odysseyaward/odysseypast.
The 2013 Odyssey Award winner is the audiobook version of the best-selling book "The Fault in Our Stars," written by John Green and narrated by Kate Rudd (Brilliance Audio, $14.99, ages 12 up).
Here's what the 2013 Odyssey Award committee had to say about its top pick:
'''The Fault in Our Stars' perfectly captures the mercurial characters of Hazel Grace and Augustus, teens whose chance meeting in a cancer support group surprises them both as they embark on an emotional roller coaster of a journey," said Odyssey Award Committee Chair Teri S. Lesesne.
''... (T)his exquisitely understated performance by Kate Rudd captured the magic of John Green's words and our hearts."
The committee also chose three "runners-up":
- "Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian," written by Eoin Colfer, audio version narrated by Nathaniel Parker (Listening Library, $37, ages 10 up). The committee said: "'Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian' immerses listeners in a world populated with fairies, trolls and Opal Koboi -- Artemis Fowl's archenemy. Nathaniel Parker's energetic performance conveys the rollicking adventures listeners have come to expect from Artemis Fowl."
- "Ghost Knight," written by Cornelia Funke and narrated by Elliot Hill (Listening Library, $30, ages 8 up). The committee said: "'Ghost Knight' gives voice to a pack of apparitions, who endanger the life of Jon Whitcroft, a boy miserably confined to a boarding school. As Jon and his new friend Ella seek to solve a century-old mystery, danger threatens their every move. Elliot Hill's narration ably balances the real and ghostly worlds."
- "Monstrous Beauty" by Elizabeth Fama, narrated by Katherine Kellgren (Macmillan, $29.99, ages 12 up). The committee said: "'Monstrous Beauty' intertwines two stories set generations apart, as Hester learns about her ancestor, a mermaid named Syrenka, who left her sea family to pursue her true love on land. Katherine Kellgren brings to life the voice of mermaids, seagulls, ghosts and contemporary teens in this romance with supernatural overtones."