Hi, my name is Martha, and I’m an audiobook addict. I first became hooked early in the new millennium when serving on ALSC’s Notable Children’s Recordings committee (chaired by the inimitable Mary Burkey). Now, audiobooks are a daily presence in my life. I listen to new ones on my commute to work, and some favorites are stored permanently on my laptop: Terry Pratchett’s Nation, Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Sissy Spacek reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jack Gantos reading his own Dead End in Norvelt.
So when the audiobook of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star (Brilliance Audio, 2011) arrived in the office, I squeed (or rather I would have squeed if I were a squeeing kind of person, or if I even used the word squee). The Name of the Star was a book I read and loved and gave to teens and talked up all last year. If you haven’t read it, it’s an inventive, original, constantly surprising novel in which the narrator, 17-year-old Rory, arrives from Louisiana to attend boarding school in London, where someone is re-creating the Jack the Ripper murders, and only she is able to see the killer. It’s got suspense, humor, paranormal appeal, depth of characterization, and romance. (Bucking the tired but apparently inexhaustible paranormal trend, the object of Rory’s affections here is not the ghost but a fellow, human student. Thank you, Ms. Johnson.)
As a bona fide addict, I know that there are a few possible scenarios when listening to a book I’ve loved in print. One, the production will be so superior that it will surpass the print version: the narrator is so skilled, or so perfectly matched to the material, that I will forevermore associate that voice with that book. Two, the production will be competent enough that it neither enhances nor detracts from the print book. Three—and I really hate it when this happens—the production of a terrific book will be flawed, to the degree that I have to stop listening lest it ruin the print version for me.
Here’s the fatal flaw in the Brilliance Audio version of Name of the Star: narrator Nicola Barber gives Rory a straightforward, uninflected accent when she’s reading Rory’s first-person narration, but she gives Rory a heavy Southern drawl whenever Rory has actual dialogue. In both cases it’s supposed to be Rory talking, but she has two very different voices.
How does this happen? Does the narrator make this decision spontaneously? Does the producer or director decide? Is there a chain of command where people sign off on such a ludicrous idea? If so, how would they justify it? “Rory’s from Louisiana, so she has to have a Southern accent, but we can’t have her narrating the whole book that way, so we’ll just have her drawl in the dialogue”? I don’t know. I do know that I just hate it when I’m recommending a terrific book to a parent or a child, and I have to actively warn them away from the audiobook version. This is not something that sits well with an addict such as myself. It feels like a betrayal. But it feels like an equal betrayal on the part of the audiobook producers to release such a misguided production of such a good book.