Four years ago, my family and I were preparing for a camping trip to Camp Whitsett in the Sequoia National Forest with my son’s Cub Scout pack. Ben was 8 and he loved books. I loved to read to him, but I get carsick if I try to read in the car. Obviously, my husband couldn’t read and drive at the same time. I was worried Ben would get bored 10 minutes into the four-hour ride, leading to many hours of “Are we there yet?” I was dreading the trip before it even began.
When I took Ben to the Sherman Oaks library’s Martin Pollard Branch to look for books to keep him busy during the road trip, librarian Wendy Horowitz introduced me to the children’s audiobooks section of the library. I found a copy of “The Spiderwick Chronicles” on compact disc that was read by actor Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in five “Star Wars” movies.
“Hey, Ben, do you want to have Luke Skywalker read you a story on the way to camp?” I asked.
“Sure!” he replied happily.
Next, I went to the juvenile fiction section of the library and found hardback volumes of “The Spiderwick Chronicles” to go with the audiobook. When we got in the car, I loaded the CDs into my car’s CD player so we could all hear the story. As we started our road trip, we entered an enchanted world of fairies, trolls, elves and shape shifters.
As we traveled from Los Angeles to the Sequoia National Forest, I, along with Ben, got caught up in the audiobook. It was impossible not to. Each character had a unique voice, which made it easier to follow the story and picture the events as they unfolded. It felt like an old radio play, when families sat together to listen to such programs as “The War of the Worlds” or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
When we finally arrived at Camp Whitsett, Ben asked, “Can we stay in the car to listen to more of the story?” This was so different from the “Are we there yet?” that I was expecting. I even began looking forward to the long drive home at the end of the weekend.
Combining Audio and Print
When my son was young, he loved going to the Sherman Oaks library for story time. Dena Loverde was his favorite volunteer reader. “There is nothing like the look on a kid’s face when you read a book to them, when you read one of your favorite books or a passage of a book,” Loverde says. “You say it with emphasis or emotion and they can see how excited you get about it, and that makes them excited about it. It’s one of the things that I love about reading to kids.” The next best thing to reading to your child is listening to audiobooks together. It’s like inviting a storyteller along for the ride.
Many years ago, as an adult-literacy tutor at the Pasadena Central Library, I learned that listening to a story while following along with the text has several advantages over reading or listening alone.
Children who are learning to read often have trouble sounding out words they encounter for the first time. Being able to see a word in the printed book and hear it being spoken connects how a word is spelled to how it is pronounced. Hearing a new word in context also helps the child understand what the word means. “Some children are visual learners,” says Horowitz, who is now photo librarian at the Los Angeles Central Library. “I was a visual learner, so I relate to the tendency to see words and phrases spelled out in my mind when I listen to a recording. For many children, the combination of listening and seeing cements language in a way that is both engaging and mnemonic.”
By listening to a story while following along in the book, auditory and visual learners have a chance to learn in the mode that works best for them. Improving listening skills is also useful for helping students learn to follow teachers’ instructions, which will serve them well throughout their years in school.
Another benefit of exposing your children to audiobooks is that the fluent, expressive reading of the storytellers develops and strengthens their reading skills. This is especially useful for parents who speak a language other than English at home but want their children to be fluent in English. The professional voice actors reading the books often use different voices for the various characters, which makes it easier to tell the characters apart. They sometimes use regional accents, too, depending on where the story takes place.
Audiobooks can also be interactive. When my son reads to himself, I don’t necessarily know what the book he is reading is about, so it’s hard to have discussions with him. Listening to the book together is a shared experience. I can occasionally pause the CD and we can talk about what we just heard. We can even get creative and come up with ideas about what might happen next, or create new stories.
I’ve recommended audiobooks to friends whose children are learning to read. I’ll even stop other parents in the library to tell them about the advantages of pairing audiobooks and print books.
At home, our family discussions about audiobooks lead to improved reading comprehension. We talk about the book’s plot, setting, characters and themes. We also talk about the voice actor’s use of different voices or accents for each character.
Growing Up Audio
Over the past several years, we’ve checked out audiobooks from the public libraries in Sherman Oaks, Encino, Studio City and North Hollywood. We have discovered that every library has an audiobook section, each with a different selection of titles, so exploring different libraries expands your options.
If you prefer MP3s over CDs, that’s fine. The Los Angeles Public Library has audiobooks that can be downloaded to your iPad or smartphone. Be sure to get unabridged versions of the audiobooks, so that the spoken words will align with the written words in your printed book.
“Children and their parents have more options than ever when searching for a platform to read,” says L.A.-based YA author Michael Thal. “Whether it be a traditional paper book, e-book or the growing popularity of audiobooks, reading is a great way to gain the knowledge of others, boost imagination and creativity and improve understanding of themselves and others.”
My son, who is now in middle school, still loves audiobooks and listens to them in the car on the way to and from school. As soon as he gets in the car, Ben buckles his seatbelt, picks up his book and asks, “Can you please turn on my audio?” I gladly oblige.
As Ben switched from early readers and short chapter books to middle-grade novels, our discussions grew more involved. Now we address big themes such as justice, importance of family and determining your own future by your actions.
In my family, time spent sitting in L.A. traffic jams is no longer wasted. It has become quality time spent listening to audiobooks and discussing what we’re hearing. “Audiobooks are absolutely the best way to make the most out of a long car ride,” says Joanna Fabicon, the senior librarian for children’s services in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Division of Engagement and Learning
We recently listened to Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars,” the “Star Wars” trilogy re-written in iambic pentameter and voiced by actors who sound like the characters from the movies. When we drove a carpool of 11-year-old Boy Scouts from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach for a canoeing adventure, Ben had his friends listen to his audiobook. I wasn’t sure what they would think of the rhyme, but because it was a “Star Wars” story, they loved it.
If you are working with a new or struggling reader, I highly recommend combining books in print with audiobooks. Who knows what adventures you’ll embark upon together – whether taking a summer road trip or just driving our Southern California freeways? As a bonus, your child may never again utter the dreaded words, “Are we there yet?”
Rachel Zimmerman Brachman is a writer, educator and literacy tutor. She lives in Sherman Oaks with her husband and son.