Guest Post Author Guest Post: Ashley Hope Pérez on her Printz Honor winner OUT OF DARKNESS audiobook

Ashley Hope Pérez sets her riveting story of love and tragedy in an East Texas oil town against the backdrop of the 1937 New London school explosion, one of the worst school disasters in American history. In this historical context, she explores racism and segregation, posing thought-provoking questions about these divisive forces. A must-listen Hear Diversity pick, OUT OF DARKNESS is a beautifully rendered, multi-layered story that demonstrates the power of bringing diverse voices alive on audiobook.

A long-time audiobook listener, author Ashley wrote about the experience of hearing her own audiobook produced, on the Latinx in Kid Lit blog. Check our her post below.

Latinx Listening: An author’s audiobook experience
By Ashley Hope Pérez

I have been listening to audiobooks for nearly three decades, so it was something of a dream come true to see OUT OF DARKNESS go into production shortly after it received a Printz Honor. Before production began, though, I found myself wondering if my strong opinions about narration, pronunciation, and the like would get in the way or set me up for disappointment. What if the narrator’s voice didn’t match the texture or tone I’d imagined in writing?

I needn’t have worried. I loved how involved I got to be in the process with Listening Library. Executive producer Aaron Blank proved scrupulous in his attention to detail, from the pronunciation of my last name (yes, that accent mark means something, as I explain here) to the particulars of how to say “Cari” and “Beto,” the names of the twins in the novel. Yes, I might have sent him audio recordings of me pronouncing their names…

A few people have asked me if I wanted to narrate my own book. In general, I find that author-narrated audiobooks are rarely as effective as those narrated by actors. In particular, I have an aversion to the sound of my own voice on recordings, so that option wasn’t even on the table. (Although I would like brownie points for recording this brief introduction to OUT OF DARKNESS.)

Aaron shared my sense that it was important to cast a Latinx narrator or a narrator with exceptional Spanish and cultural competency. We also agreed that it would be important to find talent capable of handling the wide range of voices, including Henry’s oil field diction and Wash’s African American Vernacular. It’s possible that I sent Aaron YouTube videos to illustrate the flattening of vowels common among East Texans as well as examples of intonation for Southern accents and African American Vernacular that captured the particularity of speech without any whiff of caricature. And (*secret revealed*) since I always pictured Wash as a young Jackie Robinson, I had to send some footage of a film about Robinson, too.

I listened to many wonderful auditions, but Benita Robledo’s beautifully modulated voice stood out immediately. She settled quickly into the world of the novel, managing not only to capture the texture of Naomi’s experience but also the nuances of other point-of-view characters as well.

Benita's voice is as beautiful as she is. Sometimes you can feel that smile in the narration.

Benita’s voice is as beautiful as she is. Sometimes you can feel that smile in the narration.

It’s a tremendous boon that, as director Tony Hudz noted, Benita gets “all the pronunciations, pitch- and letter-perfect.” But what Benita brings is more than that. Also a Texan, she grew up near Brownsville and (again quoting Tony) “knows this turf” emotionally and psychologically. In my listening, I hear the spark of connection, sincere animation of my words that comes in part from recognizing the silences that they seek to counter. Benita shared this about the experience of bringing OUT OF DARKNESS to sound:

In the still hush of the recording studio, with only my voice and my director to guide me, I would lose myself in Ashley Hope Pérez’s words. Sometimes I’d get so involved in the story, I wouldn’t realize a whole morning had passed and it was time for a break. She has an incredible talent for creating beauty even in the ugliest of times. For me, getting to live and breathe OUT OF DARKNESS, was nothing short of magic.Benita Robledo

Narrator Lincoln Hoppe

The admiration is mutual. Ditto regarding my feelings for Lincoln Hoppe, who masterfully renders the passages in the voice of “The Gang,” which as the only first person narration in the novel, we felt should have a different narrator. Here’s what Tony had to say about Lincoln’s role:

The first thing you have to know about Lincoln Hoppe is that he’s a 6’4″ puppy dog. With glasses. One of the sweetest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. It is thus a tribute and a testament to his professionalism and skill as a reader when I say that he captured full well the ugliness and evil of The Gang. God, he did a good, awful job. And I think the slightly husky/sometimes almost raw texture of his voice will play off beautifully against Benita’s relative sweetness and lightness.
Director Tony Hudz

And it does, friends, it does.

Benita and Lincoln’s voices animate the narrative world of my book. Benita captures the beauty and audacity of hope in the face of prejudice, and Lincoln distills the surprising lyricism of some of the darkest threads of human consciousness that I’ve ever tried to write.

A caveat: it’s hard to listen to the prologue of OUT OF DARKNESS. This is through no fault of Benita’s. The prologue is difficult to read on the page, too; I wanted it to be that way. As one reviewer noted, the prologue acts as “a litmus test to see if you can emotionally handle this haunting novel.” The prologue figures the tremendous loss of the New London school explosion, which left one in four children dead, and the terrible possibilities it unleashes in the imagined world of my novel. Hearing this part read aloud ups the ante as Benita’s voice evokes the human stakes of tragedy.

It’s a difficult beginning for a difficult book. But it is a kind of difficulty that, I believe, we need to reckon with. It’s the kind of difficulty that helps us face, honestly, all that we are capable of in moments of great loss, the beauty and the horror of our humanity.

—Ashley Hope Pérez

OUT OF DARKNESS
By Ashley Hope Pérez
Read by Benita Robledo and Lincoln Hoppe

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Praise for OUT OF DARKNESS:

“Beautifully crafted…[A] moving portrayal of both powerful love and a period marked by oppressive, destructive racism.”—A Printz Honor Winner

“[Pérez’s] layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama that goes down like it should, with pain and fascination, like a mix of sugary medicine and artisanal moonshine.”—The New York Times

★ “…Resonates with fear, hope, love, and the importance of memory…Set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, [Pérez]…gives voice to many long-omitted facets of U.S. history.”—School Library Journal, starred review

★ “…A powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism.”—Kirkus, starred review

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