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A Letter from Thom Barthelmess about Audiobooks and Diversity

Librarian, and Author at The Horn Book

The We Need Diverse Books call to arms galvanized a growing movement to put more books by diverse authors and illustrators about diverse experiences into the hands, and hearts, of all young people. Teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, booksellers, publishers, bloggers, parents, and young people themselves are joining in the discussion about how important it is for all of us to encounter people just like us, and people nothing like us, in the stories we consume.

Much of the conversation has focused on books in print, but we would do well to recognize the critical role audiobooks play in connecting diverse books to their young audiences. In all kinds of ways audiobooks facilitate and enhance the reading experience, making stories come alive for children and teens who might otherwise miss out.

Audiobooks provide a bridge to literacy.

We know how important it is to make diverse books available to children and teens, but for some kids that is only the first step. Many young people lack the decoding and fluency skills to unlock the stories contained within these wonderful books. Audiobooks are able to bridge this gap, bringing the stories to life for struggling readers. This bridge is especially important because young people from traditionally marginalized communities, where these kinds of literacy problems can be endemic, are some of the kids most in need of seeing and hearing themselves in books.

Audiobooks also support the print-based literacy that all young people need.

They reinforce narrative skills, contextualize vocabulary, and support a love of reading. Audiobooks add momentum to the reading experience. Whether kids are only listening, or listening along while they read, the self-propelled nature of audiobooks pulls them forward. Reading can be a difficult business, and audiobooks strengthen young people’s innate disposition to keep going.

Audiobooks enhance diverse stories with authentic and resonant interpretations of culturally specific language and dialogue.

Just as young people need to see themselves in the stories they consume, they need to hear themselves as well. The conscientious casting of talented, representative narrators ensures that what kids hear through the audiobook experience reflects what they hear in their real lives. This kind of integrity is important to all listeners; kids need and deserve to hear authentic representations of people from their immediate communities and people they have yet to encounter.

Audiobooks add variety to our reading.

We know the importance of diversity within diversity. Every community has many, many stories, each one unique, and we come to appreciate the nuance and complexity of these different experiences through the plurality of our reading. Audiobooks add layers of understanding to this appreciation. Professional narrators bring inflection, pacing, style and tone, to the story – thus, enhancing the individuality of each audiobook, thereby compounding the range of reading opportunities available to us. By listening to diverse books, we come to understand the deep significance of every life, and, by extension, our common humanity.



Thom Barthelmess