In light of the COVID pandemic, we’re re-sharing some of our favorite articles that may be helpful to you and your families during this time. Originally published 2/09/2019.
Last winter was a particularly cold one for us. I had a newborn who wanted to nurse almost every hour of the day and a three and a half year old who wanted to be entertained even more frequently. I was a heartbeat away from losing my mind. And then a miracle happened.
We got the audiobook of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder and narrated by Cherry Jones from the library. I imported it into my computer and pushed play.
Over the next four months, Sam listened to most of Little House series about twenty times. (We skipped The First Four Years and only listened to These Happy Golden Years once and Little Town on the Prairie a few times, since those books have some problematic content for a young child).
There were literally days where all he did was sit and play Laura (with Jack and I as Ma and baby Carrie) while listening to the books. Since then, we have found dozens of books and series of books that have sustained us through summer heat, winter cold, and fifteen hour road trips.
We listen to audiobooks during quiet time. We listen to audiobooks almost any time we’re in the car. We listen to audiobooks while we walk the neighborhood in the double stroller.
And here’s the kicker — he listens. And he remembers. I have seen how listening to audiobooks has greatly improved his memory, his ability to relate what he has heard, and his ability to make connections between different stories and characters, different historical time periods or fantastical settings, and different personalities.
It has helped him engage in imaginative play. It has vastly broadened his vocabulary and improved his speech. Every now and then he’ll say a word or phrase that just floors me because I don’t expect to hear it from a four year old. And of course, he is gunning for a baby sister who can be Lucy to his Edmund or Jessie to his Henry. (Seriously. He keeps asking me how long until he gets his two sisters so they can be the Boxcar children and solve various mysteries he is sure he will encounter.)
I highly recommend making audiobooks part of your family life. Choose books that are worth listening to. And for your own sake, choose books with good narrators who make the books enjoyable to listen to. Here are some of our favorite audiobooks to listen to. Maybe they will help keep you from losing your mind on a tough day (or just any day) too.
8 Audiobooks Worth Listening to with Your Kids
(Listed in order of age appropriateness):
01. The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, dramatized narration by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer, Jane Horrocks, and Michael Williams (Listening Library, 2013.)
This audio collection is a favorite in our house. The 20 stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are told in a dramatized fashion by a superb cast who bring each character and story vividly to life.
Also, a nice feature of this collection is that it is divided into stories rather than chapters. You can choose to listen just to one story (averaging about 15 minutes or so) if you need to occupy a child for a short amount of time or listen through the whole collection, which is about four and a half hours. The Pooh stories are wonderful and you’ll be hard pressed to find more endearing characters than Pooh, Piglet, and co. The stories are silly, but often poignant, and filled with sweet lessons for even the smallest children.
02. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, narrated by the author (Listening Library, 2002.)
Charlotte’s Web — what a wonderful book! This timeless classic of the enduring friendship between a pig and a spider who comes up with a masterful plan to save his life is vividly brought to life by E. B. White himself.
His narration gives so much personality to the barnyard animals who share in Wilber’s triumphs and sorrows, and the book itself is an enjoyable read for children and adults alike. It is a beautiful story to share with children, teaching selflessness, sacrifice, and the depth of true friendship.
03. The Boxcar Children Collection by Gertrude Chandler Warner, narrated by Phyllis Newman (Books on Tape, 2006.)
I’ve reviewed The Boxcar Children more fully here, but this audio collection contains the first three novels, The Boxcar Children, Surprise Island, and The Yellow House Mystery. These books are, in my opinion, the best of the series, because they focus on the original story and have a continuity to them, unlike all the later mysteries which are often a little silly and over the top.
Of these three, Surprise Island is my favorite because it is so unique and just the type of book kids love — showing the children living on their own (with two adults nearby keeping an eye on them) on their Grandfather’s island for the summer.
They are self-sufficient and create their own fun; they make their own food, build their own furniture, have wonderful adventures exploring the island, and even make a museum in the loft of the barn where they live. I recommend this particular audio collection because the narrator is much more enjoyable to listen to than the irritating ones chosen for the audiobook collections published by Oasis audio.
04. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, narrated by Douglas Hodge (Listening Library, 2013.)
This is a book that I prefer as an audiobook. Douglas Hodge does such a wonderful job bringing Charlie’s world and Wonka’s eccentricities to life that it is delightful to listen to and incredibly entertaining.
As soon as we finished listening to the book for the first time, Sam said, “that was a fun book! Can we listen to it again?”. And we did! It’s an excellent book for children, because while it is fun and exciting, it also holds up Charlie as an example of what a child should be: kind, selfless, and self-controlled. I’ve reviewed the book more fully here, but cannot recommend this audiobook version enough!
05. The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall, narrated by Susan Denaker (Listening Library, 2006.)
The Penderwicks is one of my favorite modern chapter book series. The five books relate the various adventures and mishaps of the Penderwick family (originally four sisters, eventually five sisters and a brother) and their closest friends. It’s a wonderful series showing the depth of friendship and the enduring love of family. The books are filled with a captivating cast of characters that your family will come to love.
One caveat for first time readers — this isn’t quite the idyllic world of Avonlea or the Boxcar children. The books include some difficult topics such as the loss of a mother to cancer (occurring before the start of the series), the father dating and remarrying, a best friend’s search for the father he never knew and dealing with his mother’s many divorces, and one sister’s confusion over believing she’s responsible for her mother’s death. One of the sisters is also a little rough around the edges and the book is realistic about the sometimes challenging relationships between siblings.
But, I love this family for their loyalty to each other and the way the siblings work through the growing pains of growing up together. My favorite book in the series is the second book, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, because it is simple, sweet, and laugh out loud funny.
06. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Michael York, Alex Jennings, Lynn Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, and Patrick Stewart (HarperAudio, 2004.)
In this wonderful audiobook collection of the beloved series by C. S. Lewis, each book is superbly narrated by a different British actor. These books are the perfect series to listen to together as a family because they offer something for everyone — action and adventure for younger kids, lessons in right and wrong for older kids, and some deeper theological truths embedded in the allegory for adults to ponder.
The heroes and heroines are also real kids who have real struggles, and some, like Digory, Edmund, and Eustace, have real trials and mistakes to overcome through Aslan’s help. There are some difficult scenes that you may to discuss with your children, such as Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Caspian, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace being kidnapped into slavery in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and much of The Silver Chair and The Last Battle may be confusing or even frightening for younger children.
If you want to be selective with your children, the first four novels (The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (my son’s favorite), The Horse and his Boy (my favorite), and Prince Caspian, may be the best place to start with younger children and hold off on the remaining three books until later.
07. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, narrated by Rob Inglis (Recorded Books, 2012.)
This is an excellent audiobook for older children, especially those who love action and adventure. Rob Inglis’ fantastic narration brings Tolkien’s classic tale of an unlikely hero vividly to life. And, if you feel your kids can handle it, jump right into The Lord of the Rings, also narrated by Rob Inglis.
I think children love hearing these stories for the same reason they love Narnia — because they can so easily imagine themselves as the heroes (or heroines) and they feel that they, too, can make a big difference in the world. Plus, the stories are exciting, entertaining, and there are great lessons to be learned about perseverance, loyalty, and problem solving (among others!).
08. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale (Pottermore Publishing, 2015.)
Introducing your children to the world of Harry Potter is a big deal. And while you cannot beat the experience of reading the series on your own for the first time, I highly recommend Jim Dale’s recordings if you’re looking for an audio version. If your kids are old enough, this is the perfect book series for a road trip.
These books are wonderful, but they are heavy and deal with some very difficult things, so I wouldn’t recommend these below age 11. In a recent reread, I was surprised by how dark even the first book was in places, so while I’m usually fine with letting my kids read things a bit above their age level, I’m not planning to do that here.
I also love the idea of my children getting to experience this series slowly as they grow up, the way I did, so I plan to wait on these until my kids are older. But I can’t wait to make this audiobook series a part of our family life, and if you have older kids I know you will all enjoy listening to this series together.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I love the way audiobooks help stories come to life and how much they entertain my son. Especially when they entertain him so I can have a break!
And keep in mind, audiobooks are for adults too! When it’s just me and the baby in the car, we listen to whatever I want — and last year we listened to Jane Eyre, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Pride and Prejudice, Secrets of a Charmed Life, A Christmas Carol, and the entire Harry Potter series.
See what’s available at your local library (whether through CDs or downloadable files in the Libby app), look into an audible subscription, or keep an eye out for great deals on audio eBooks. And right now, iTunes has 5 classic audiobooks available for free, including Pride and Prejudice narrated by Kate Beckinsale, The Secret Garden narrated by Karen Gillian, and Frankenstein narrated by Aaron Mahnke. (This list of the available iTunes books includes an audiobook of Winnie-the-Pooh, but unfortunately it isn’t available in the US. However, the one I listed above is wonderful!)