I am delighted each summer by the number of people who come to my library looking for audio books that will make a long drive much more enjoyable. There may be no other time during the year that these adults (both adults in a two-parent family) listen to an entire book with their children. That powerful shared experience is something that will be remembered for years to come.
So, what to choose? How about books where the characters are on their own road trips and summer adventures? Three — one new, two older and consistently reliable — are featured here to get started. But before we get to the list, I’d like to say how much there is to take in as a writer when listening to a book’s pacing, dialog, and how descriptive beats reveal so much about a character. Try listening to one you’ve read and see how you absorb it differently. Okay, now three books:
Road Trip by Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen:
Perhaps it seems a little uninspired to write about good audio books for family road trips with a book called Road Trip. But the thing is, this new book is just too perfect to ignore. Ben and his dad are two men on a mission: to rescue a border collie puppy. They set out on their journey with Atticus, their family’s 15-year-old border collie — just the three of them. By the time they get to the animal shelter, they’ve abandoned their truck for an old school bus, and the party of three is now a party of six. This book has a lot going on under the surface: father/son tensions and, later, mutual respect; unlikely people coming together for a common purpose; random characters who become close friends; and dogs. This is on the older end of middle grade books and has young teen appeal, too. As a writer, I especially enjoyed it for the dialog. (Length: 2 hours, 48 minutes.)
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck:
A Newbery Honor book back in 1999, this historical novel (set in the 1930s) is actually connected short stories. Joey and Mary Alice, Chicago kids during the school year, spend their summers with their grandmother in a tiny town. “We could hardly see her town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small,” Joey tells us. Each story covers a different summer for the siblings, and the episodic style makes it ideal for car travel. You can take it in pieces or be eager for the next one. Richard Peck is a folksy, big-hearted and humorous storyteller who appeals to a wide range of ages, including multigenerational. I’ve often wished that we didn’t have different age sections in my library because there are many adults I’d love to hand his books, but many adults also aren’t as privileged as the rest of us to know how great middle grade fiction is. The writing lesson in this one is in the tight stories, each with a satisfying middle and end. (Length: 4 hours, 18 minutes.)
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: The Watsons’ road trip starts in Flint, Michigan, with the family heading to Alabama at a most precipitous time. I’m sure I’m not alone in considering this a classic in children’s lit. And I’m sure you’ve all read it. But have you had Levar Burton read it to you? Audio is a great way to take in the dialog and transitions of this beloved book. (Length: 4 hours, 57 minutes)
Readers of all ages often ask librarians if audio books “count” in their summer reading logs. Of course they do. Still, in our conversations we say “I listened to this book” rather than “I read …” I totally get that, as I phrase it that way, too, and recognize that I take in different things if I hear them or if I read them. But just as children benefit from seeing their parents reading books, perhaps they also grow by seeing their parents listening to books — enjoying books on various levels.
Journalist and essayist Judith Shulevitz’s piece Let’s Go Reading in the Car in the New York Times last spring talks about audio books as her family’s way of gathering around a campfire for a story. Fire was an important part of human evolution for many reasons. Perhaps it’s also important, Shulevitz says for “the moment someone first got up in front of the fire and told a story that showed the others — especially the children — the magnificence of the universe around them, and made them want to be bigger-souled than they’d been so far.”