Confessions of an audiobook addict

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.
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Brenda Kahn

I noticed the same thing when I listened to it and wondered why that decision was made. It irritated me so that I stopped listening and finished by reading it with my eyes. I don't recall if I read any reviews of the audiobook, but this is the first time I've seen it pointed out. Plus, the accent was so stereotypical. That irritated me too. brenda

Posted : Jul 30, 2013 07:14

Audiobook Week: Narration choices - The Horn Book

[...] Magazine), librarian Kristi Beavin discusses four narration approaches and their pros and cons. Martha bemoans a “fatal flaw” in the narration of a much-loved book, while Kitty adores a particular read-by-the-author [...]

Posted : Jul 30, 2013 04:57

Jeanette Larson

I haven't listened to this audiobook but wonder if the idea is that I don't have an accent when I "hear" myself in my head--straightforward narration--but do, obviously, when I speak. Too bad it was jarring to the point of distraction. (I also usually have two or three audiobooks going--one on my MP3 for when I walk, one in the car, and sometimes one I'm listening to with my husband.)

Posted : May 26, 2012 05:19

Elissa Gershowitz

Scenario one is how I felt about a certain Battle of the Kids' Books winner. The plot went on and on, but I was content to listen to that narrator voice the main character for as long as he was able. And... so what?

Posted : May 24, 2012 02:16

Marthe Jocelyn

oh yes oh yes! I am usually listening to two audio books at a time - one in the car & one while I walk. The very worst thing is a narrator who disappoints, and half the time it's because of an accent - feigned or wrong or unconvincing. The very best thing is a narrator who changes the book, tells a story wider and deeper than the one on the page.

Posted : May 24, 2012 01:11

View More Comments


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more