The present emergency has brought with it a lot of forced family time, and parents with children at home are hard pressed to find activities for their kids besides hours and hours of screen time. Downloadable audiobooks present a solution, and here are a handful of gems, some written for children but engaging enough for adults - and none with content unsuitable for young people.
Although aimed at middle-school readers, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s duo of novels, “The War that Saved My Life” (Listening Library, 7 2/3 hours) and “The War I Finally Won” (Listening Library, 8 3/4 hours) will, as I can attest, captivate people whose middle-school years are but a distant memory. Set in England during World War II, the story begins with 9-year-old Ada living in London’s wretched, much-bombed East End. Ada, who has a club foot, has been imprisoned all her young life by a brutal mother intolerant of her disability. She escapes when her younger brother, Jamie, is evacuated to a village in Kent and the two ragged children are put in the reluctant care of Susan, an emotionally scarred woman. Read magnificently by Jayne Entwistle, the story unfolds through the next three years as Ada, untrusting and guarded, gradually opens up, learning to ride horseback and developing confidence in herself and in others. Filled with period detail and intrepid exploit, the novels make up a story of friendship, brilliantly conveying the complexity and tension of interpersonal relations. I cannot think of two books better suited for listening to during these anxious times.
If you’ve never read Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” (Audible Studios, 12 1/4 hours), this is an opportunity to acquaint yourself with one of the most loved English novels since it was published in 1948. (Audible is owned by Amazon, whose founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.) Narrated here in a clear, no-nonsense voice by Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne in “Call the Midwife”), the novel takes the form of a journal kept by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer and acerbic commentator. She begins with her father’s decision to plonk his family down in a drafty castle in Suffolk, England. (“Anyone who could enjoy the winter here would find the North Pole stuffy.”) He is an avant-garde novelist suffering writer’s block and extreme, if genteel, poverty. The novel is a terribly funny, atmospheric, and lightly romantic, a deft mash-up of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Cold Comfort Farm.”
Jason Reynolds’s “Ghost” (Simon & Schuster Audio, 3 1/2 hours) introduces us to eighth-grader, Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw, son of a violent, imprisoned father and a hard-working mother. Bullied because of his uncool, off-brand clothes, Ghost is disruptive at school and has never participated in team sports. On an impulse to compete, he demonstrates his running speed to the city’s track coach and is taken onto the team. This helps him deal with his anger and find a goal that calls for determination and hard work. But an act of desperate folly nearly extinguishes Ghost’s prospects along with his evolving sense of belonging. Guy Lockard narrates this stirring book in a feisty voice full of youthful bounce and occasional chagrin.
Team sports, which are on sabbatical out there in the world, flourish in books. Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the Berlin Olympics” (Penguin Audio, 14 1/3 hours) is one of the greats. Set during the Depression, it is as enthralling as Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” (Random House Audio, 13 1/4 hours). The late Edward Herrmann, whose voice is familiar from the History Channel, reads this account of the University of Washington’s rowing crew and their victory in the 1936 Olympics. At the center is Joe Rantz, an impoverished youth with a hard-luck history whose own story could be a novel. The Washington team stunned the snooty crews of the East, defeated their archrival, California, and went on to win the men’s-eights Olympic gold medal, beating Italy and Germany by one second.
Zetta Elliott’s “Dragons in a Bag” (Listening Library, 3 1/2 hours) presents 9-year-old Jaxon, whose mother, on a mission to prevent their eviction from a run-down Brooklyn apartment, leaves him in the charge of an ornery old woman known only as “Ma.” She, it emerges, is a witch and has troubles of her own in the shape of three tiny dragons who must be returned to another dimension, one where magic flourishes. Jaxon and Ma end up traveling together through a portal (a Prospect Park guardhouse) to another world, the wrong one, as it happens. From then on complications proliferate, most arising out of a missing dragon. Jaxon’s friend Vikram and his little sister, Kavita, get involved with ramifications that spill over into a sequel, “The Dragon Thief” (Listening Library, 4 hours). Ron Butler narrates the first book and is joined by Soneela Nankani in the second, both readers bringing a wonderful medley of voices to the characters, human and animal, who populate these adventures in fantasy.
Our homes, so familiar and confined, do, in fact, contain the world, as Bill Bryson demonstrates in “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” (Random House Audio, 16 1/2 hours). Starting with the mid-19th-century former rectory in which he lives, he introduces us to a universe of fact, anecdote, history and whimsy spun out of the lares and penates around him. The genial-voiced Bryson reads the book himself, sharing his pleasure in peculiar details - Henry Ford owned a concrete piano; the Duke of Marlborough was a cheapskate who wouldn’t “dot his ‘i’s’ ... to save on ink”; Cornelius Vanderbilt’s wife went to a costume party as an electric light. The book - an attempt to “write a history of the world without leaving home”- is an intoxicating jumble: witty, informative and all over the map.