Best new audiobooks

Hear, hear! These audiobooks add new dimensions to kids' literary adventures.

By Rob Baedeker

Jessica

By Kevin Henkes, read by Katherine Kellgren

Ages: 4-6

This sweet book celebrates the short but magical time when a child invents her own (imaginary) best friend out of whole cloth. Recommended by Denise Schmidt, children and teen’s collection librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, this audio version of Jessica successfully brings the picture book to life. Katherine Kellgren — a popular audiobook reader — does a beautiful job with the different young voices and the soft narration. Terrific background music and inventive sound effects enhance the story for little listeners with short attention spans.

Bottom line: Lovely and timeless tale delivered flawlessly by a mega award-winning reader.

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories

By Dr. Seuss, read by Neil Patrick Harris, Anjelica Huston, and others

Ages: 4-8

Dr. Seuss’ lyrical, tongue-twisting stories deserve to be narrated by golden-tongued talent. The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, an audio collection of early original works, pulls out all the stops, boasting an all-star lineup that includes Hollywood heavy hitters such as Neil Patrick Harris, Anjelica Huston, William H. Macy, and Joan Cusack. "This is a fantastic choice for kids who are just learning to read," says Jeanne Lamb, coordinator for the youth collections at the New York Public Library. "They can relax, hear the flow of a wonderful story, and then make the connections to the page."

Bottom line: The pitch-perfect gift for the Seuss-obsessed kid.

Countdown

By Deborah Wiles, read by Emma Galvin

Ages: 10+

What a treat: An audiobook that dramatically improves the storytelling by using an inventive range of sound effects. Convincingly narrated by Emma Galvin, Countdown ($30.40), the first book in Wiles’ sixties trilogy, recounts the first-person tale of 11-year-old Franny, an army brat who navigates adolescence during a time of political revolution. "What I love about this audiobook is that you get to hear bits of music, scratchy news reports, and recordings of important speeches that help you really feel the story," says Shilo Pearson, the used materials librarian at the Chicago Public Library.

Bottom line: Gives middle schoolers an audio time capsule of the tumultuous sixties.

 

No Passengers Beyond This Point

By Gennifer Choldenko, read by Becca Battoe, Jesse Bernstein, Tara Sands

Ages: 10 and up

"We always have a waiting list for this one," says Mary Schreiber, youth collection development specialist at the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio. In No Passengers Beyond This Point , three kids are sent away to live with their uncle after the bank threatens to foreclose on their house. But somehow in transition, they end up in Falling Bird, a topsy-turvy town reminiscent of Dorothy’s Oz. Each kid is voiced by a different narrator — all established actors — who nail each of the characters and heighten the mystery of this absorbing adventure.

Bottom line: Multiple narrators breathe life into a gripping saga with a "ripped from the headlines" urgency.
 

Dead End in Norvelt

Written and read by Jack Gantos

Ages:10+

When you've got a novel that lures a middle schooler into a history lesson, you know you've got something good. And Jack Gantos' autobiographical novel, Dead End in Norvelt ($21.89), is a gem. Read by the author himself, the book blends truth and fiction seamlessly as he tells of his turbulent summer of 1962 spent helping his neighbor type up obituaries of the people who founded his town. "This book is laugh-out-loud funny," says Wendy Woodfill, children’s selection librarian at the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis. "And because Jack Gantos knows this story upside down and sideways, his narration of it is first rate."

Bottom line: A rollicking, absurd, and historically vibrant tale, gleefully told.
 

The Cruisers: Checkmate

By Walter Dean Myers, read by Kevin R. Free

Ages: 10 and up

Winner of AudioFile magazine’s Earphones Award, The Cruisers: Checkmate, is the second book in Myers’ Cruisers series about a group of gifted middle school misfits in Harlem who bond over competitive chess. Myers has a subtle touch and is able to explore issues of peer pressure, drug use, and the power of the (school) press with grace. Narrator Kevin Free does a superb job of capturing the diversity of voices and personalities of the Cruisers kids, as well as the stern assistant principal, Mr. Culpepper.

Bottom line: An engrossing story that teaches significant life lessons without ever sermonizing.
 

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery

By Maryrose Wood, read by Katherine Kellgren

Ages: 9-12

Katherine Kellgren gives another stellar performance narrating The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery, the second book of this popular series about a plucky British governess and her three wolf-child charges. Kellgren's accents are spot-on, with deft vocalizations of everything from aristocratic to Cockney. With London as the backdrop and offering sage advice like "No Panicking. No Complaining. No Quitting," this is a Mary Poppins-esque tale elegantly and wittily crafted for the millennial generation.

Bottom line: Satirically spot-on adventure yarn that one reviewer called "charming as heck."
 

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant; read by Sarah Coomes, Nico Ever-Swindell, Shannon McManus, Arthur Morey, Julie Whelan

Ages: 14+

Librarian Wendy Woodfill recommended this short fiction anthology of YA’s hottest sub-genre — steampunk, which blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, history, adventure, and even romance into speculative fiction that thrills. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories features 14 stories by well-known authors including Cassandra Clare and Cory Doctorow. "There’s a lifetime of creativity, mystery, and ingenious adventure packed into this book," Woodfill says. "And because it's a collection of short pieces, it’s a great choice for kids who don’t have long attention spans."

Bottom line: Inventive and fantastical stories that appeal equally to easily distracted and adventure-seeking boys and girls.

Beauty Queens

Written and read by Libba Bray

Ages: 14 and up

What happens when an airplane crashes on a desert island, leaving a bunch of beauty queens stranded? Pretty hilarious stuff, actually. Libba Bray is beloved for her previous YA novels, and with Beauty Queens, she pushes the envelope even further with a slapstick, satirical take on beauty pageants and other hot-button issues faced by teen girls. "This is a real tour-de-force," says Jamie Watson, collection development coordinator for the Baltimore County Public Library. "I love that it’s not a preachy, message-driven book (although there are some good messages) — and did I mention it's hilarious? The author clearly relishes reading her own material."

Bottom line: Comic relief helps teen girls let off some steam at a time when the pressure to conform is powerful.

Rob Baedeker is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He is the coauthor, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: Weddings of the Times and Obama's BlackBerry.