Audiobooks: Four Styles of Narration

by Kristi Beavin

Earlier columns have dealt with selecting appropriate titles (May/June 1995 issue) and with the importance of carefully matching those selections with specific voices (January/February 1996) in audiobook production. While these are two of the most important factors in producing a successful audiobook, another — reading style — is also critical. While some narrators are adept in more than one performance mode, others have a stylistic preference that is unwavering. There is no right or wrong here, although the “ambidextrous” may have success with a wider range of books. Unlike individual voices — nasal or noble, pedantic or plummy — which seek to create character, define locale, or portray mood, reading styles must relate to the structure of the book itself. They have an almost invisible connection to the success or failure of each audio title produced.

Reading styles can be loosely grouped into four general categories: fully voiced, partially voiced, unvoiced, and multivoiced. The first, and most common, is the fully voiced reading, in which the personalities of all the various characters are vocally dramatized and maintained throughout the production, much like actors in a stage play. By contrast, the partially voiced production focuses on individualizing one or more characters, allowing the rest (often including the narrator) to recede into the background. Unvoiced readings are not, contrary to what their name might imply, silent, but merely straightforward readings of the text in a single voice without resort to vocal role-playing of any sort. The last category, multivoiced, involves a cast of individual readers, each responsible for one character. While this may seem, as described, not that much different from a fully voiced approach, the dynamics of integrating multiple readers changes the audio landscape considerably.

Christian Rodska’s reading of The Watchers — Helen Cresswell’s powerful re-creation of the mysterious after-hours life of an amusement park and the two desperately sad children who discover its secrets — is a fine example of a dexterous fully-voiced performance. The book’s omniscient narrator is given a brisk, storyteller’s voice, carefully paced for emphasis, swooping and pausing for dramatic effect. Against this backdrop are set the cockney accents of young Josh (impulsive, irritable, afraid) and sensible Katy (introspective, protective, cautious). Appropriately, the two children’s voices, while distinctive, are variants of each other, and worlds apart from the punky, sibilant snarl of the King — the self-appointed Fagin of this sinister alternative world. Such a book, with distinctive and richly varied characters, is naturally suited to a fully voiced style of reading. One technical flaw — uneven lengths of material on two sides of the tapes (over four minutes of dead air at the end of side one and well over five at the end of side seven without any instruction to fast forward) — mars an otherwise excellent production.

In Lady Daisy, an uncharacteristic departure from his usual finned and feathered fantasy, Dick King-Smith brings magic into the very ordinary world of young Ned, a nine-year-old boy who, develops an unusual attachment to a porcelain Victorian doll. The doll can talk, and is astonished at the changes in the world since she fell asleep in 1901. Nigel Lambert keeps the pace brisk, and chooses an expressive, almost confiding voice for the narrator. Ned’s voice sounds properly young and impatient; Gran, by contrast, is an indulgent, endearing old lady; and Lady Daisy is believably prissy and Victorian. A fine production that brings an appealing cast of characters to life.

Another fully voiced flight into fantasy is the recording of Sid Fleischman’s The 13th Floor. The story is told by twelve-year-old Buddy Stebbins, an inhabitant of the twentieth century who steps into an elevator and quite unexpectedly steps out onto the deck of a dilapidated seventeenth-century pirate ship. Buddy’s voice is suitably modern, even bland, and narrator Richard Adamson only shifts gears with the colorful voices of the 1600s buccaneers. While the pirates’ voices may seem a bit stagy to some, the overall effect is a pleasant and effective re-creation of a pungent and peppery tale.

American-turned-British Blain Fairman narrates two very different titles by Betsy Byars and illustrates how a reader can excel at one and miss the mark on another. The first, Wanted…Mud Blossom, part of the five-book Blossom series, includes a cast of  voices as extensive as the Blossom family itself. Despite careful pacing and well differentiated characters, the backwoods twang of this ramshackle family is almost entirely lacking. In The Dark Stairs, Fairman’s voice is much more suited to the generic mystery setting. He manages a credible girl’s voice for the young protagonist-detective, and the overall tone of the book — suspenseful rather than humorous — is better suited to Fairman’s stage-trained delivery.

George Guidall’s natural narrative style is fully voiced, but his deliberate pace, formal approach, and elegant enunciation are best suited to texts set in far off times and places. From its dramatic dark-of-night opening scene, Guidall sweeps the listener into Avi’s Smugglers’ Island, a story of adventure and intrigue set in Prohibition-era America. Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, Katherine Paterson’s tale of nineteenth-century China, also opens dramatically, with Wang Lee’s capture by three ruthless bandits. Here again, Guidall transports listeners quickly out of contemporary reality. Both of these openings pale, however, in comparison to the first chapter of Jamake Highwater’s Rama, in which the prince’s arm is seized by the lifeless hand of a half-buried corpse and he tumbles forward into its deadly embrace. This dramatic tale, based on the ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, is enriched by Guidall’s stately approach.

Honors for the best fully voiced — or just plain best — performance of 1995, however, fall to Ron Keith for Redwall. Cluny, the terrible one-eyed rat, is divinely scourge-like; Matthias is happily transformed from endearing to ennobled; and the attenuated sibilant hiss of Asmodeus is as sinuous and fearsome as the coiled serpent himself. In a testimonial to the power of this  production, fans will forever hear the voices of these characters as created by Keith, and will be impatient for the next installment until the final volume is done.

Books that revolve around central characters with strong dominant voices lend themselves to partially voiced readings, probably because much of the action is filtered through one participant’s sensibilities. Likewise, books that focus on families or other cohesive groups make logical choices for this type of treatment because similarities in speech patterns within a family (accents, cadence inflection, etc.) can be heard as variations on a theme — underscoring the connections, suggesting the differences. Language-rich or introspective books can be especially successful when read this way, as listeners are more apt to hear the graceful turn of the words or interplay of emotions when they are not overshadowed by demanding characters.

Christina Moore, a frequent reader for Recorded Books, uses the partially voiced technique often. She is not always successful: in Haveli, as in Shabanu (both Recorded Books), she fails to capture the dark richness of the people and the place. Likewise, the disparate voices of the three children in The Pinballs (Recorded Books) seem too much of a piece to bring out the clash of their haphazard coming-together in a foster home. Two other selections suit her reading style much more comfortably. Her  interpretation of The Summer of the Swans, with its carefully crafted language and the intense inner turmoil of its main  character, is absorbing and dramatic. Janet Taylor Lisle’s Afternoon of the Elves, with its profound exploration of a child’s mind and emotions, works equally well.

William Roberts’s reading of Beverly Cleary’s three mouse sagas, beginning with The Mouse and Motorcycle, falls somewhere between fully and partially voiced. The narrator Keith’s voice is only slightly differentiated from those of his parents — a likely reflection of the way parents sound to children: part of the seamless background noise of life. Roberts’s portrayal of Matt the bellhop (Ralph the mouse’s dearest friend at the Mountain View Inn), is much more colorful; Ralph himself is suitably squeaky (and suspiciously similar to Keith); and his motorcycle sounds are all that mouse — or boy — could ask for.

Jeff Woodman is an accomplished narrator who excels at creating a cast of characters with diverse accents. In M. E. Kerr’s Gentlehands he creates a family whose voices sound—most appropriately—like variants of each other. The only real contrast is Buddy’s German grandfather: elegant, distant, controlled, he quickly snaps into focus as the central figure in this dark drama. Under the Blood-Red Sun is another showcase for Woodman’s partially voiced style of reading. Here he carefully calibrates the differences between the members of an extended family made up of first, second, and third generation Japanese-Americans. Yet, because this is a story not only of family but of a group of boys whose loyalty transcends their ethnic backgrounds, the voices of the “Rats” are very much in tune with each other.

The third style of narration, unvoiced readings, is highly dependent on the match between the narrator’s voice and the flavor of the text. In Thunder Rolling in the Mountains (Recorded Books), Linda Stephen’s elegantly enunciated syllables and deliberate pace do not easily evoke the daughter of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Stephen conveys a sense of distance and translation rather than immediacy and authenticity. Johnny Heller’s rendition of white-knuckle danger in The Hostage (Recorded Books) damps the excitement down to the level of a dull documentary, and his portrayal of a young boy in Gary Paulsen’s sentimental Christmas Sonata (Recorded Books) is devoid of both the magical and the miraculous. Like pure storytelling, unvoiced narrations might seem to be as easy as breathing; because of that very simplicity, they have the greatest potential for failure.

By way of contrast, Alyssa Bresnahan’s narration of The Endless Steppe captures the understated drama of the text: real people trapped in events that spiral relentlessly out of their control, victims who refuse to be victimized. Reading the first-person account of a young girl’s experiences in World War II Siberia, Bresnahan’s voice somehow captures the essence of both the child caught up in history and the survivor who remembers it.

Another unvoiced production that succeeds by virtue of a successful mating of narrator and book is the recording of Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May. Deeply introspective almost to the point of motionlessness, this special book requires an extraordinary reader to help it succeed in audio format. Narrator Angela Jayne Roberts was a fortunate choice: she actually sounds young enough to be the book’s heroine; her flat twang suits the West Virginia locale; and she conveys a sense of deep involvement with both the events and the people.

The fourth category, multivoiced or dramatized readings, can be spectacularly effective, but can also be opportunities for  resounding failures. More so than single-voiced readings, they run the risk of sounding mechanical: narrators whose alternating dialogue can’t quite match the rhythm of normal interchange, or the monotonous insertion of “he said, she said” by a neutral third party. The net result is that this type of production can underscore, rather than camouflage, lackluster writing. While Norman Dietz’s single-voiced renditions of Matt Christopher’s sports sagas, such as The Hit-Away Kid or Challenge at Second Base (both Recorded Books), are plodding at best, Christopher’s style is not much improved by the dramatized production of Tough to Tackle (Listening Library). Another puzzling attempt at a multivoiced reading is Chris Crutcher’s Ironman (Recorded Books). There is no real reason for using two narrators here, especially when neither one captures the wise-guy, in-your-face humor upon which the characterization of the young protagonist depends.

Somewhat better is Bruce Coville’s Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. The plot-hook, the variety of voices, and the occasional use of special sound effects all add to the listener’s interest. Another interesting approach is the BBC’s dramatized production of The Wind in the Willows. Those wedded to the original book may be disappointed, since the text has been totally rewritten as a radio play. But the addition of sound effects and music, plus the emphasis on dialogue, makes this an appealing audio experience  and a suitable introduction to a classic for an audience too young to tackle the original.

Best of all is Paul Fleischman’s Bull Run. A symphony of voices — an eager but too-young boy, an African-American would-be recruit, a gracious educated woman — re-create the first battle of the Civil War from multiple perspectives. Like Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (Recorded Books), Bull Run is a book that was written to be heard. Here is the human dimension of history: rage,  hope, fear, and love—in accents both geographically and ethnically diverse. Old and young, man and woman, pinched New England and honeyed South combine to create an intricate, almost orchestral, experience. The reading styles give way to the  interplay of individual voices, and the happy result is a book heard at its unquestioned best.

Recommended Titles Reviewed Above

Avi     Smugglers’ Island
Recorded Books     1995    3 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0375-7     $24.00
Read by George Guidall.

Betsy Byars     The Dark Stairs: A Herculeah Jones Mystery
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7571-9     $16.98
Read by Blain Fairman.

Betsy Byars     The Summer of the Swans
Recorded Books     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0383-8     $18.00
Read by Christina Moore.

Beverly Cleary     The Mouse and the Motorcycle
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7543-3     $16.98
Read by William Roberts.

Beverly Cleary     Ralph S. Mouse
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7546-8     $16.98
Read by William Roberts.

Beverly Cleary     Runaway Ralph
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7537-9     $16.98
Read by William Roberts.

Bruce Coville     Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7531-X     $16.98
Read by Bruce Coville and The Words Take Wing Repertory Company.

Helen Cresswell     The Watchers: A Mystery at Alton Towers
Listening Library     1995     4 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7565-4     $29.98
Read by Christian Rodska.

Paul Fleischman     Bull Run
Recorded Books     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0432-X     $18.00
Read by various artists.

Sid Fleischman     The 13th Floor
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN     0-8072-7614-6     $16.98
Read by Richard Adamson.

Kenneth Grahame     The Wind in the Willows
BBC Radio/BDD Audio     1994    2 casso     ISBN 0-553-47654-8     $16.99
Read by various artists.

Esther Hautzig     The Endless Steppe
Recorded Books     1995     6 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0413-3     $45.00
Read by Alyssa Bresnahan.

Jamake Highwater     Rama
Recorded Books     1995    4 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0409-7     $34.00
Read by George Guidall.

Brian Jacques     Redwall
Recorded Books     1995    9 casso     ISBN     0-7887-0382-X     $71.00
Read by Ron Keith.

M.E. Kerr     Gentlehands
Recorded Books     1995     3 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0371-4     $24.00
Read by Jeff Woodman.

Dick King-Smith     Lady Daisy
Listening Library     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-8072-7550-6     $16.98
Read by Nigel Lambert.

Janet Taylor Lisle     Afternoon of the Elves
Recorded Books     1995    3 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0386-2     $24.00
Read by Christina Moore.

Katherine Paterson     Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom
Recorded Books     1995     5 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0410-9     $41.00
Read by George Guidall.

Cynthia Rylant Missing May
Recorded Books     1995     2 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0377-3    $18.00
Read by Angela Jayne Rogers.

Graham Salisbury Under the Blood-Red Sun
Recorded Books     1995     5 casso     ISBN 0-7887-0427-3     $41.00
Read by Jeff Woodman.

From the September/October 1996 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. This post is part of Audiobook Week on Out of the Box. For more, click on the audiobooks tag.
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