Awards & Recognition 2016 Odyssey Awards Speech: Karen Dziekonski, audiobook producer of THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE

Karen Dziekonski is the 2016 Odyssey Award-winning producer of The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, narrated by Jayne Entwistle. Her speech was delivered at the American Library Association Conference in Orlando, Florida on June 27, 2016. Click here to read Jayne Entwistle’s speech.

“Every now and then while reading a book that will be made in an audiobook, I do something that I’m not proud of, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. I hide from my kids. I make sure they’re not attacking each other, tiptoe into the bathroom, gently lock the door behind me, sit on the toilet, and read. The story has pulled me into its world and won’t let go. I’m emotionally invested in the characters and have to keep going on their journey with them. Usually it’s just a few minutes before the girls figure out what’s going on and hurl themselves against the door, but I like to think when they’re older they’ll have a conversation like this:

Hey, do you remember when Mom used to hide from us so she could READ?

Yeah, those are great memories. She really instilled in us a lifelong love of reading. She’s the best mom, ever.

When I read The War that Saved My Life for the first time, I was finishing up maternity leave after the birth of my second daughter. During a quiet moment, I snuck away to my hiding spot to spend some time in Ada’s world. I’m not the first to say that stories are powerful because they resonate with our own experiences, and that was certainly true for me in this case. As a new mom, I was fiercely protective of Ada from the very first page. I hunched over the book as if blocking her from Mam’s words and blows. Ada’s voice is stubborn, earnest, and vulnerable as she takes the painful steps towards a family and love. My heart split right open. I cried a lot.
And then I thought, who the hell is going to narrate this thing?

Long-form storytelling is really hard work and it’s not for every actor. Last year I worked with an acclaimed stage and film actress, and after the first day of recording she was dizzy, seeing double, and ate four hotdogs when she got home. Audiobook narrators are special people with remarkable talents, and over the years I’ve had the honor of working with hundreds of them. But truth be told when I thought of Ada, I wasn’t hearing any of them in my head.

Then my fellow producer Orli Moscowitz recommended a narrator I’d never worked with before, Jayne Entwistle. It was exciting to listen to the range of Jayne’s work. Even from her samples I could hear her connection to feelings, and her commitment to emotional subtext—there’s a word that makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. Without talking to [the author] Kim (that’s a story for another time), I felt as if Jayne just had to be that voice inside Kim’s head. Kim would later tell me that this is true, which is why I’m able to mention it now with such confidence.

Karen addresses the Odyssey crowd

Karen addresses the Odyssey crowd

Jayne, we’ve spent some time together this weekend, and I’d really like to be friends. Is that ok? It’s not surprising that you tell a great story, whether it’s behind the mic or at the dinner table. Before we met in person I knew I liked you when you wrote in an email that you cried while recording The War that Saved My Life. It’s a gift to listeners when an actor can let a book’s emotions overtake them and then pour their heart and soul into a performance. Thank you and congratulations on the Odyssey Award.

As we see almost every day, the world is filled with violence and hate and all kinds of things—and people—that reflect poorly on humanity. How do we explain to children what we can’t understand ourselves? Now more than ever we need to be able to turn to books like The War that Saved My Life to help children (and ourselves) understand what they might be feeling when they don’t have the words. Kim, you have of a way of writing about emotions that I’ve never encountered before. All the characters feel deeply. You weren’t afraid of Ada’s anger and frustration because you help her find a way to peace and love. It was such an honor to work on your audiobook and I am greatly anticipating working with you and Jayne on the sequel.

Karen, Kimberly, and Jayne at the Odyssey Awards

Karen, Kimberly, and Jayne
at the Odyssey Awards

One of the wonderful things about being able to work at Listening Library/Penguin Random House Audio is that everyone does their very best to make good decisions about the books we bring into the audio realm. With The War that Saved My Life, one of our valued directors, Jessica Kaye, worked with Jayne in the studio and you can hear how all the decisions they made about the performance were the right ones. Rebecca Waugh builds Listening Library lists that have producers hustling for titles. Dan Zitt leads a huge production team with presences in New York and LA, but he unites us all with the reminder that our first commitment is to the author and finding that voice in their head. Katie Punia and her terrific publicity team get great coverage for our audiobooks and authors. Cheryl Herman and her [marketing] team have really raised the bar for the kind of outreach and relationship building that a publisher does with librarians and the communities who listen to audiobooks. There are many other folks who we work with daily who really have our backs, like Ok Hee Kolwitz and Mike Murray on post-production, and Sue Daulton who does so much I can’t even begin to talk about it.

This is my first ALA, and I had no idea just how incredible and huge it was going to be. I’d like to apologize to [Sr. Marketing Manager] Jodie Cohen for asking, “What’s the big deal?” as she was making all her preparations last week. Jodie, now I know.

Cindy Lombardo and Karen

Odyssey Chair Cindy Lombardo
and Karen

Many thanks to Cindy Lombardo and the Odyssey Selection Committee for this great honor, as well as ALSC, YALSA and Booklist for sponsoring the Award.

We visit our local library in South Huntington, Long Island, a few times a month and seeing the children’s librarians through the glass doors is like seeing an oasis in the desert. The librarians are endlessly patient, knowledgeable, unflappable, and always full of recommendations that make my four-year-old excited to read. Hopefully someday she’ll hide from me in the bathroom to get lost in a book.”

Click here to read Jayne Entwistle’s speech.

Learn more about THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE here.

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