Sound Literature

A guide to audiobooks for youth

August 12, 2013


The act of reading is evolving. Today’s readers can experience the same story as they toggle between audiobooks in the car, ebooks on the iPad, and paperbacks at home, and young people in particular are naturals in this transmedia world.

Introducing these digital natives to literature as audiobooks can be as easy as maintaining a format-neutral policy when referring to reading. As families, classroom teachers, and library workers consider expanding their collections of literature in the 21st century, evolving formats provide challenges to developing and maintaining them.

Build your collection

The quickly changing world of publishing can paralyze librarians who are hesitant to purchase a possibly short-lived format. As audiobooks shift from physical to digital releases, questions about digital rights management and downloading protocols raise concerns about content ownership versus rental. Availability of both broadband for downloading and the players needed for listening to digital content provokes unease about equity of user access. The result? Libraries need to build their audio collections on a just-enough-for-just-right-now basis. That means focusing on a variety of currently available formats that address the diverse needs of the listener and allocating limited funding to patron-driven selections.

Auditory learners, once frustrated by the dearth of nonfiction audiobooks, now have a multitude of categories to provide enlightenment and education. Some audiobook publishers have produced complete courses, developed and recorded by professors with supplemental texts and online exams, such as Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar imprint. Other large publishers offer blockbuster-fiction bestsellers, simultaneous audio and print versions of indie favorites, and scholarly nonfiction. Quality nonfiction for youth, which often contains essential visuals, may have an additional disk in the physical audiobook edition that includes computer-readable images, or may combine text, image, and narration in a streaming digital product. Biographies and memoirs are a fast-growing segment of the market, with the added benefit of an author voicing his or her life story. Even small-niche publishers have created audiobooks for a unique clientele, such as Knitting Out Loud. Digital downloads offer a hybrid product: both images and professional narration synced to text.

When creating a balanced collection, librarians need to consider not only the format and genre of audiobooks but also production and narration methods. Audiobooks are not a one-style-fits-all format. Some listeners like evocative audio effects and underlying music. Others are distracted when music and other sounds compete for attention and prefer only narrated text. Some listen best when a cast of readers portray characters. Others have a favorite narrator and will listen to anything he or she reads. Many publishers provide added content such as author interviews. Some specialize in audio recordings of live stage or radio productions. Choose audiobooks with a variety of playing times, as well, from short stories or vignettes to epic-length titles that may span more than 20 hours, focusing on the student-friendly sweet spot of three-to-five-hour titles. Providing a broad spectrum of audiobook styles enables listeners to find a title that fits their particular mood or personal listening preference.

For a diverse collection, track down titles from a large number of publishers. Hunting down a book’s audio edition can be frustrating, though. Consumers, as well as schools and libraries, often turn to large online vendors such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to see if a title is available in audio format. However, this will not give a clear picture of the entire range of audio editions produced. Some titles are published as both retail and library editions—often by different companies, with different narrators, and as abridged and unabridged versions. Just one of those possibilities may be available from a particular online vendor—or none at all. Many titles are released as digital-only products, with no physical edition. Some audio publishers have both a public library division and a school division. Some formats, such as the Playaway version of a publisher’s title, may be available through one vendor for the school market, another for the public library market, and directly from the manufacturer’s website for consumers. Noncommercial recordings produced for people who are blind or otherwise print disabled usually cannot be found through any commercial vendor.

A simple solution to edition and format overload is to search OCLC’s WorldCat website, the world’s largest catalog of library materials. There you can seek a desired title and narrow the format parameters to audiobook, CD, or e-audiobook. The results show the range of formats and editions held in libraries around the world, including international editions and foreign-language audio versions, as well as audiobooks available through Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. You can then search a commercial source, a school or library wholesale vendor, or the publisher for a particular edition. Schools and libraries may choose to purchase and repackage a lower-priced retail consumer physical edition, while many institutions may want to purchase directly from the title’s publisher to take advantage of sturdy library packaging and lifetime free replacement of physical media. AudioFile has an excellent audiobook reference guide that includes a detailed listing of publishers large and small, with web links and contact information. If a certain audiobook or other desired format is currently out of print, there’s a possibility that the publisher may have a small number in stock if you contact the company directly.

Show off your new audiobooks

Once you’ve built your audiobook collection, promoting it can be as straightforward as a face-to-face recommendation, or an eye-catching display in a community gathering place. Whether personal or passive, marketing is essential for increasing patron usage.

Encourage audiobook use among kids and teens by hooking parents and teachers first, and let these trusted adults provide word-of-mouth recommendations. Adult coaches and youth advisors are ideal partners who welcome suggestions of audiobooks that will allow students to keep up with required reading by listening on the bus, while waiting for club events, or during after-school activities.

Additional methods to try:

  • Set up displays of family-friendly audiobooks for on-the-go listening before the next holiday break or during parent-teacher open house night. Also post a recommendation list on your library website.
  • Create displays or handouts with audiobook suggestions that fit listening time blocks, from short trips around town to cross-country jaunts.
  • Offer to be a virtual “shopper,” willing to match both a child’s interests and family vacation travel time, and package a collection of audiobooks from the school library for over-the-summer checkout.
  • Highlight your collection during toddler time and in parent email newsletters, along with research data explaining how listening to literature benefits literacy.
  • Convert a teacher who has a long commute by slipping a surefire YA audiobook into his or her work mailbox, and gain an adult ready to share favorites with students.
  • Offer to speak to interested educators about the library’s audiobook collection and distribute handouts from publishers that detail educational benefits.
  • Target intervention specialists who work with special needs youth and share how audiobooks specifically benefit groups from toddlers with developmental disabilities to gifted and talented high school students.
  • Step outside the library to promote summertime family listening. Get permission to display promotional posters about online library card applications and digital downloads at venues such as the local pool.
  • Incorporate listening minutes in summer reading club requirements and lobby teachers to allow audiobooks to fulfill students’ reading assignments.
  • Include audiobooks in curriculum pathfinders and classroom collections, and promote audiobooks on the library website and social media outlets, friending publishers who may offer giveaways or contests.

Get kids involved

Give kids a chance to try out audiobooks by providing listening stations in youth and teen areas in your library and by creating a student listening club or a parent-child audiobook group. Libraries that have large physical collections of audiobooks will want to include a circulating collection of inexpensive players to increase use. Kids who have only digital players may ask for advice on how to rip an audiobook on CD or flash drive to load onto their personal MP3 player or cellphone. Remind them about the importance of following copyright law and treating this transfer exactly like a checked-out physical item, deleting and destroying the title immediately after listening in order to “check it in,” and to never share the file. Tie audiobooks to youth services programming, Teen Read Week, or Teen Tech Week by hosting a gadget petting zoo and demonstrating how to download audiobooks and ebooks onto a variety of digital devices.

Multitasking teens will appreciate displays of audiobooks in collaboration with craft programs on knitting or beadwork, or alongside workout DVDs. Get audio-savvy youth volunteers into the audio promotion act with a multigenerational program that sends them to senior citizen centers to teach residents how to download audiobooks and ebooks onto e-readers. Feature these teens in how-to videos that demonstrate digital downloads and recommend favorite titles in audiobook trailers on the library website.

Into the future

The rapid pace of change in the publishing world shows no signs of slowing down, and libraries must learn to adapt in order to provide the best for patrons. Varying formats and instant accessibility will expand the role of multimedia literature, leading to streaming digital content everywhere. This explosion of options opens the world of literary excellence to young library patrons, many who previously would never have checked out a physical book. As the very definitions of “reading” and “book” are rewritten, new digital formats allow a reinterpretation of literacy. The ability to shift seamlessly from image to text to sound will be part of every young person’s transliteracy education. Yet no matter how much the medium of the message may change, a core truth remains: To be human is to share our stories.

The aural appreciation of story is the oldest form of literature, and voice captured on audiobook communicates an author’s words in a way that recreates the oral tradition. As libraries are reinvented in the digital age, Ranganathan’s Second and Third Laws of Library Science—“Every reader his or her book” and “Every book its reader”—have been revised as “Every patron his or her story” and “Every story its format,” allowing literature to find new appreciation from new audiences.

MARY BURKEY is a National Board-certified teacher-librarian from Columbus, Ohio. She is past chair of the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee of ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children. This article is an excerpt from her book Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA Editions, 2013). Visit to purchase a copy.


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