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There’s something particularly reassuring and downright optimistic about kids overcoming obstacles and winning the day when times are tough. That’s why, when I found myself in a reading slump, I turned to a particular kind of audiobook: those with young protagonists.
Like a lot of people last year, I spent far too much time doomscrolling from website to website, worrying about things I couldn’t control. I couldn’t concentrate. Thankfully, I discovered I could listen.
According to Psychology Today, I’m not alone in turning to audiobooks in times of stress. Audiobooks can transport us back to a time when parents or teachers once read to us, often a comforting state of mind. They can also reduce negative thinking. And because stories have a beginning, middle, and end, our worn-out brains can take a break with making sense of our own confusing world. All a win.
I’d also like to think young protagonists add another layer of comfort. While listening to these stories, I was reminded of what it feels like to see the world as a place of exploration and wonder — even when the odds are stacked against you.
For reasons only the reading Muses will understand, I listened to either middle grade or adult fiction. (Sorry Young Adult, I do love you too.) The three middle grade novels were prior favorites, but most of the books aimed at adults were new to me. All have strong narrators and transporting stories, something we can use more of in troubling times.
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, Read by Lynn Redgrave
There’s a special sort of thrill you get when you start a new audiobook and just know that it’s about to become a favorite. That perfect opening music, a skilled narrator, and a hook that dives in deep: Inkheart has it all. I’ve listened to the opening at least a dozen times now, and it still gives me chills. Twelve-year-old Meggie is awake late at night, reading, when a mysterious man visits her father, Mo. The man warns him someone is after an extremely valuable book Mo owns. When Mo attempts to flee with the book, he’s taken by armed villains. Meggie sets out to get him back. Perfectly voiced by Redgrave, Inkheart is a love story to reading.
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Read by Graeme Malcolm
A book about 12th century pottery set in a South Korean village may not be your first pick for a comfort read, but perhaps it should be. Park’s Newbery-winning tale takes readers deep into the world of Tree-ear, an orphan living and surviving with the help of Crane-man, an older friend who has long struggled for food and safety. But Tree-ear has a secret. He loves to watch Min, a master potter, at work. When he accidentally breaks a valuable piece of pottery, he asks to work for Min to pay him back. Along the way, he becomes determined to create his own works of art — a laughable prospect for an orphan like himself. Tree-ear’s remarkable journey will leave you feeling hopeful that even the seemingly impossible can become possible with luck and hard work.
Wolf Brother: Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #1 by Michelle Paver, Read by Ian McKellen
Ian McKellen brings to life this harrowing journey of 12-year-old Torak. A demon-haunted bear kills Torak’s father and threatens the safety of the world. Torak, Renn, and Wolf must make their way to the mountains to defeat the demon. I’ve listened to this incredible production for free on The Guardian Books podcast twice now. McKellen gives a masterful performance that will have you whipping through each new episode as Torak and Wolf fight to stay alive.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Read by Cassandra Campbell
Okay, so this one is just the tiniest bit of a cheat. Everything I Never Told You is told in an omniscient point of view, including adult POVs, like Ng’s other novel Little Fires Everywhere. But it’s the chapters with young Lydia that made me want to include the book here. Thirteen-year-old Lydia vanishes, and as her parents search for her, it becomes increasingly clear that no one really knew who Lydia was: not her parents, not her so-called friends, and not even her brother. What happened to this young girl? Who is to blame? And what does it mean for a young Asian American girl to disappear from this mostly white small town?
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, Read by Anne Heche
Stephen King has created a lot of intense kid narrators over his prolific career. Carrie, in the namesake book, Carrie, is probably the best well known. But, for me, I’ll always be 9-year-old Tricia McFarland’s biggest fan. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a simple story in a lot of ways — a girl gets lost in the woods and must find her way home — but it’s told with incredible heart. Tricia only has her walkman for company. Every night, she tunes in to listen to distant Red Sox games with her favorite pitcher Tom Gordon at the helm. As she gets deeper and deeper into the woods, something begins tracking her. The only worry you’ll have on your mind as this story unfolds is whether Tricia can find her way home alive.
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Read by Joshua Whitehead
Jonny, a Two-Spirit “NDN glitter princess,” is one of our oldest narrators in this group of audiobooks. Though we’re never told his exact age, he’s left the rez and is on his own when the story begins. But when his stepdad dies, he has to figure out how to raise the money he needs to get back home for the funeral. Mostly told through vignettes, the novel is a bildungsroman that shows sex as both destroyer and savior for young Jonny. The flashbacks into his childhood are intense, but they’re also filled with humor. Whitehead is a poet and his lyrical precision is a pleasure to listen to.
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, Read by Robin Miles
At 19, Lucy leaves her home in the West Indies to work as an au pair in the United States. At first, everything is bleak. Even the sun betrays her with its bright shine in the bitter cold. But as Lucy adjusts, she sizes up the people in her life with razor-sharp vision. This short book deals with race, privilege, and class, but its predominant theme is identity. Lucy must give up her past entirely in order to create the life she needs. A powerful novel, you’ll marvel at the character’s determination to envision life on her terms.
For more suggestions on stress relief, try the 10 Best Bookish Podcasts for Distancing Yourself from the News. Or check out the latest neuroscience on the affects of listening to audiobooks.