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Gendered reading and audiobooks

My daughter became a bookworm this year, reading middle grade novels by Carl Hiaasen, Kate Beasley, Robert Beatty, and Erin Entrada Kelly. She read before bed, and while eating breakfast and brushing her teeth. When she finished a book, she’d pass it along to me, and we’d discuss it. I felt excited about this new bond that we were forging with books.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous TalesI couldn’t help feeling that my son was on the sidelines, though. There he was, still chugging along with his graphic novels and comics. He’d read and reread favorite series: Mark Siegel’s 5 Worlds, Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis, and Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants, biting his nails and fidgeting all the way to the next installment — which couldn’t come fast enough.

I commute across town to work, and during the summer, I dropped my children off at day camps nearby my office. We were spending at least an hour a day in the car together. It was around this time that my anxiety about national affairs flared up. I listened to news podcasts during my commute, and somewhere between the Access Hollywood tape, Harvey Weinstein, and Stormy Daniels, I broke down. I’d arrive to work stressed from the news, not ready to start my day. I felt snappish toward my kids. My mind would be racing as I’d recall my own #metoo moments. (Plus, is anyone ever ready to explain what a “porn star” is to their kids?)

I walked to the local public library on my lunch break and checked out a middle grade audiobook. Forget the news, I was going to escape into books. It was time for audio-bibliotherapy. I grabbed a favorite novel that I hadn’t experienced in audiobook format: Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer.

I started One Crazy Summer that day on our commute home. We were collectively entranced by Sisi Aisha Johnson’s voice as she narrated Delphine’s earnestness and intense feelings toward the mother who abandoned her. Her voice turned childlike when voicing Fern’s parts and kindly gruff for Big Ma’s comebacks. It didn’t take long before my children would parrot Fern’s “surely do!” refrain from the backseat.

I noticed my son pick up the audiobook case and pore over the cover art. It features an African American girl, face in hands, looking up. In the background is a young girl with a babydoll and a woman with an Afro.

“This book looks old,” he said, gazing at the cover art.

As much as I remind my kids not to judge a book by its cover, cover art seems a big factor in how my children judge whether a book is interesting. My son confessed that if he saw One Crazy Summer in a library or bookstore, he probably wouldn’t pick it up, based on that “old” looking cover.

I also wondered if gender had anything to do with it, as well. With the exception of the 5 Worlds series, Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse books, and Cece Bell’s El Deafo (all of which feature anthropomorphized or not-quite-human female forms), I couldn’t get my son to pick up a book with a female on the cover. While the reasons for this aversion are well covered in Grace Lin’s Kidlitwomen* podcast and elsewhere, suffice it to say that I found his lack of interest in books with mostly female characters disturbing and unacceptable.

It didn’t take long for my kids to ban me from listening to One Crazy Summer without them. They were hooked. They went on to listen to the other Gaither sister novels, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama, which are also read by Sisi Aisha Johnson. Johnson’s talent for vocal variation and southern accents in Jimmy Trotter and expressive family feuding scenes between Miss Trotter and Ma Charles entranced my kids.

After listening to these three books in succession, they began to associate our commute time with audiobooks. “What’s next?” they’d ask. I decided to run an experiment. I would select audiobooks and just pop them in to the car CD player without telling them what they were. “It’s a surprise,” I’d say.

I choose middle grade books by women (and many women of color) who wrote about mostly female protagonists. In this fashion, we listened to Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, Hena Khan’s Amina’s Voice, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life, Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, Rita Williams-Garcia Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

There were moments when my son would moan, “boooor-ring!” But a few minutes in, he’d be fidgeting quietly, staring out the window, and listening. Only after my kids got hooked on a story would I show them the audiobook cover, which more often than not featured a female form.

During Amal Unbound, my son, who thanks to a growth spurt had levelled up to the front seat, shouted, “They can’t make Amal be a servant! No way! Don’t do it, Amal!”

“But SHE HAS NO CHOICE!” yelled my daughter from the backseat.

“I don’t care. I still wouldn’t do it,” my son insisted from the front.

This moment seemed not only to capture Amal’s dilemma, but something larger about gender and how my children had already internalized their respective gendered social hierarchies. What was going on in my son’s refusal to accept Amal’s confinement, and my daughter’s recognition that, while it was horrible, there were injustices that girls just had to accept?

This experiment started out with my trying to escape from the news and into audiobooks, but I discovered that books allowed my family and me to explore social issues through fiction. (Plus, it reinforced the fact that we must never stop our efforts to challenge status quo representations of gender.) For my son, the “reluctant reader,” these audiobooks opened a door not just to how middle grade books are captivating and worth a try but also to the fact that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Books about girls are relevant to all genders.

I set out to expose my son to books featuring mostly female characters; my experiment was an attempt to broaden his horizons and reinforce the message that books about girls were relevant. This was a big step for my kid. But wait — not so fast. This experiment relied on traditional binary conceptions of gender as only male and female; it neglected to address nonbinary or genderqueer expressions. There will be more reading, more listening, more discussion. I am going to continue my audiobook experiment in the hope that I can subtly reinforce the message that it’s never okay to think that we can ignore the stories and experiences of others. Listening to the stories of those who are different is humbling, challenging, and one of the most significant things we can do. There is work yet to be done.

Do you have an audiobook that you’d recommend for car rides with kids? I’d love to hear about it!

More on audiobooks from Family Reading:

Julie Hakim Azzam About Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. While her academic specialization is on literature from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, she has a passion for children’s literature and has been interviewing children’s authors for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.



  1. My oldest will read anything; my two youngest only want graphic novels. But I put on an audiotape of “The Great Brain” (one of my favorites from childhood) a few weeks ago, and my younger two were hooked! I think they like the short story format of each chapter – we’ve gotten bogged down in some longer reads. Now my youngest is checking out all the other “Great Brain” books from the library and actually reading!

  2. I loved reading about the changes that occurred in yourself, son, and daughter as a result of your choice to use drive time to listen to audiobooks. I can’t help but believe those rewards were greater than political talk on radio or cell phone use could have ever provided.

  3. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Jim Dale reading the Harry Potter books is a priceless listening experience. Even after reading the HP books to/with my kids as they trickled out over the years, we would grab an audio version for car trips just to savor the story again and relish Dale’s captivating interpretation.

  4. Thank you all for reading and commenting, and sharing your favorite audiobook finds. We also loved Jim Dale’s reading of Harry Potter (if you liked that, check out Michael Sheen’s narration in Phillip Pullman’s newest, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. It is not to be missed!). I will definitely check out The Great Brain (haven’t thought of that book since I was a kid!). Good recommendations–keep ’em coming!

  5. I’ve enjoyed listening to A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, The Wee Free Men Series by Terry Pratchett, Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon.

  6. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    My boys, 8 and 5, are way into the recent Grimm Brothers collection (including Jim Dale…and everyone else!). We just started Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies, which they’re enjoying, and they loved Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky (we looked at the gorgeous illustrations separately!).

  7. HUGE fan of the audiobooks for the Redwall series! Also currently going through the audios for the Fablehaven/Dragonwatch series and Septimus Heap/TodHunter Moon series!

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