When the full cast audiobook edition of Liza Wiemer’s YA novel The Assignment was released, educators reached out to ask about using it in their classrooms. This led her to notice a wider trend: not only was she hearing about teachers incorporating audiobooks into lessons, but also parents who were listening to audiobooks along with their children.
This piqued Liza’s interest especially because The Assignment, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and YALSA Best YA Fiction nominee that School Library Journal called “an important look at a critical moment in history through a modern lens showcasing the power of student activism,” to speak against injustice and is based on true events: exactly the kind of narrative that fuels dynamic discussions. Enter Rachel Kamin, a librarian whose audiobook co-listening experiences with her two sons have led to a flurry of bookish conversations.
The Penguin Random House Audio and Penguin Random House Library Marketing teams are delighted to feature Liza’s interview with Rachel below, which we know parents, teachers, librarians, and audiobook fans won’t want to miss.
Interview with Librarian Rachel Kamin (& Sons!)
by Liza Wiemer (author of The Assignment)
Although I have never met Rachel Kamin, a Chicago librarian and mother to a pre-teen son, Evan, and teen son, Jared, I have had the pleasure of getting to know her over social media. During this time, I’ve been impressed with the special bond she has with her sons, a bond that’s been fostered by their commitment to listen to audiobooks together. That experience has enabled them to create a bridge to discuss tough issues, strengthen communication, and improve literacy—and I had to learn more!
Liza: What ages were your sons when they started listening to audiobooks, and did you always listen together or is that something that evolved over time?
Rachel: When the boys were in first and fourth grade, they started attending Hebrew School weekly, and that was in addition to Sunday School. It’s a forty- to fifty-minute drive to the synagogue, so I would pick them up right after school to get them there on time. They were tired, restless, and hungry. They either fought over what music to listen to, argued and annoyed each other, or were off-the-wall silly and rambunctious. When it was over, we had to get back in the car to drive home, usually in traffic. Even armed with a ton of snacks, it was the absolute worst part of my week!
At the time, I was the After School Book Club chair at their elementary school and had volunteered to lead the fourth and fifth grade discussion for Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. It was too challenging for Jared to read on his own, so I was reading it aloud to him. But the days and weeks got away from us and some evening commitments forced me to miss bedtime. There was no way we would finish the book on time for book club. In addition, I had to prepare for the discussion, plan a snack and an activity to go with the book. I was starting to panic! I don’t remember how or why I got the idea, but I decided to give the audiobook a try. I remember that first car ride vividly. After settling in with their snacks, both boys were mesmerized by the narration. We drove all the way to Hebrew School in silence. No one argued, bickered, or complained. When we arrived, they didn’t want to get out of the car!
Liza: Could you share more about your listening experience, including when and where you listen, how you select audiobooks, if you discuss them along the way or wait until you finish, and why this experience is so important to you.
Rachel: As the boys got older, homework, sports and activities demanded more of their time, which meant they had less time to read for pleasure. Independent reading opportunities and our special moments before bed to curl up together with a book became few and far between. But we sure were in the car a lot, not just for Hebrew School and synagogue events but because both boys play travel sports with practices and games all over the Chicago area. Before the pandemic, I often felt like we were spending more time in the car than we were at home! If we utilized that time to listen to a book together, I didn’t feel so guilty about skipping bedtime reading.
Jared: I’ve always liked to read graphic novels, comic books and hybrid books like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, but I’m not much of a reader. I’m more of an auditory learner, so I prefer audiobooks. When I listen with my mom, we can pause between chapters and I can ask questions to make sure I understand what’s going on.
Evan: I like to listen to books that I wouldn’t normally read. For example, the Harry Potter books are really long so those are great on audio. I also choose audiobooks by my favorite authors such as Chris Grabenstein, Gordon Korman, or Jason Reynolds. I also like the following series: the Wonder books, The Terrible Two, and Spiderwick Chronicles. There are also audiobook narrators that I really enjoy like Guy Lockard and Bahni Turpin. I often pause the book to ask my mom a question. We also discuss the book afterwards. Since I don’t always have a lot of time to read, it’s nice to listen to books together.
Liza: What is it like to listen to audiobooks with difficult topics and themes with your sons/mom?
Rachel: Jared and I had a pretty intense emotional experience listening to Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt as part of his middle school summer reading requirement. It might have been the first book he “read” that didn’t have a completely happy ending. We were both stunned and in tears at the end of the audiobook, so much so that we went back and re-read the ending in the print book because we just couldn’t believe what had happened. We were devastated, but that book generated a lot of discussion. It was our first foray into YA literature.
Jared: It’s easier to learn about a difficult issue from listening to an audiobook. For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was a good audiobook because the narrator fit the characters so well. I really got a sense for who the characters were, what they were going through and what life is like for teenagers in a place like Garden Heights. It was also interesting to watch the movie afterward and compare it to the book. Two other audiobooks/movie combinations I liked were Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and its movie Love, Simon and The Martian by Andy Weir and its movie with the same title.
Evan: I’ve never thought about some of the issues that come up in books. For example, what it would be like to be a ten-year-old completely on his own in 1936, like Bud in Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis or to mistakenly end up in a camp for troubled boys during a Category 5 Hurricane like Frederick Frederickson in Lions & Liars by Kate Beasley.
Liza: How do you talk about the hard parts and in what ways has listening to audiobooks impacted your relationship?
Rachel: It’s so much easier to talk about a difficult issue when it’s happening to a fictional character. I can ask questions like: Why do you think the character acted or reacted in that way? How do you think they could have handled that situation differently? What would you do if you were in their shoes? How would that make you feel? We talked about homelessness when we listened to Paper Things, immigration reform with Refugee by Alan Gratz, and kindness, friendship, bullies and disabilities with Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
Evan: When we listen to books like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi, narrated by Jason Reynolds, we can discuss what’s going on in our country right now.
Liza: The Assignment has a full cast narrating the story. What has been your experience with listening to full cast narrations compared to a single narrator?
Jared: I love listening to full cast audiobooks! It’s like watching a play or movie in your head and I feel like I really get to know each character distinctly and more deeply.
Liza: What advice would you have for families who want to include audiobooks as a part of their bonding experience?
Rachel: Take advantage of what your public library offers through Libby or Overdrive, but I also highly recommend Audible, especially for longer books and ones that have long waiting lists. Make the most of your time in the car together when you’re running around to activities and during road trips. In addition, audiobooks are great for listening at home, too. We listen together before bed, but we can also multitask during activities like folding and putting away laundry or while the boys clean their rooms.
Jared: If you want to try listening to an audiobook, make sure you pick a good one. Read the reviews or get recommendations. Check out award lists like the Odyssey Award. Those will always be good. For example, I really liked The Poet X, written and narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo and Long Way Down, written and narrated by Jason Reynolds. Both won an Odyssey Award.
Liza: In what way has your family’s experience with audiobooks impacted others?
Rachel: I love sharing my family’s audiobook experience with as many people as I can, and as a librarian, people often confess that they struggle to get their children interested in reading. One profound example was with a friend of mine who’s also an educator. She said that no matter what what types of books she gave her son, she couldn’t get him to read anything. He was more than a reluctant reader. He despised reading. Everything she tried failed to spark his interest. What could she do to ignite a love for reading when he was so adamant against it? I told her about our audiobook experience, and she decided to give it a try. The first audiobook they got was a Percy Jackson title. That was it. He was hooked. That audiobook changed their lives. Now, not only is he passionate about audiobooks, but he also has become an avid reader of books in print.Kamin Family Audiobook Favorites
Soar by Joan Bauer
The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
Welcome to Wonderland #1: Home Sweet Motel by Chris Grabenstein
The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff
Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly
Restart by Gordon Korman
The Giver by Lois Lowry
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
Holes by Louis Sachar
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks
The Assignment by Liza Wiemer
Turtle Boy by Evan Wolkenstein
Listen to a clip from The Assignment, author (and interviewer!) Liza Wiemer’s audiobook, read by a Full Cast:Plus, check out the audiobook trailer:
Liza Wiemer is an award-winning educator and the author of two adult nonfiction books, as well as The Assignment. She lives in Milwaukee with her family. Visit her at LizaWiemer.com and follow @lizawiemer on Twitter and @lizamwiemer on Instagram.
Rachel Kamin has been a synagogue librarian for over twenty years and is currently director of the Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL. She has served as the chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and was the book review editor for children and teens for The Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews. She writes articles and book reviews for School Library Journal, BookLinks, Judaica Librarianship and Library Journal, and recently co-authored a chapter about Jewish children’s literature for a book about using diverse nonfiction children’s literature in K-8 classrooms to be published by the National Council for Teachers of English.
Jared Kamin is a freshman at Lake Zurich High School in Lake Zurich, IL. An avid basketball player, he also works as a Sunday School teen aide and volunteers with Little League Challenger Baseball, an adaptive baseball program designed to empower children with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. He enjoys listening to music by J Cole and Drake and playing NBA 2K and Minecraft.
Evan Kamin is a sixth grader at Lake Zurich Middle School North. He plays football and basketball, and hopes to travel to Cooperstown, NY this summer with his baseball team. He played King Julian in his elementary school production of Madagascar and is currently in Radium Girls at his middle school. He enjoys reading, listening to music and playing video games.