Are You Listening?

I’m catching up on a backlog of entries in my Google Reader subscriptions, so it was only today that I read Susan Norwood’s guest blog (from November 21st) at Practically Paradise. “If I had the money,” she begins, “the first thing I would buy for my library is audio books.” Since I review audio books for School Library Journal, and I buy them (as well as other children’s materials) for my own library, this naturally caught my attention.

She goes on to describe how much the kids in her middle school classroom enjoy listening to books read aloud. With Playaways and CDs, students get to choose the books that appeal to them individually. They are connecting with books even when they’re feeling bored and sick of school at the end of the day. Kids are sharing sets of ear buds so that two people can listen to a story they both enjoy at the same time.

This brings us to the major issue Susan faces in using audio books in the classroom. “My biggest problem is availability,” she writes. She has been checking out materials from the local public library on her personal card. She has “invested in rechargeable batteries, a recharger, and some inexpensive headphones.” She has taken note of which books are popular, and which format the kids prefer (Playaways over CDs, for reasons she explains).

But she can only do so much. Audio books are expensive. The people who make the purchasing decisions are unlikely to have had the time and/or opportunity to listen to audio books, and so they must buy based on reviews. Budgets for audio materials are likely to be small (and getting smaller all the time, thanks to budget cuts), yet an audio version of a title can cost twice as much as its (hardcover) print counterpart. Susan mentions the Goosebumps books as favorites of her students. The Playaway version of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps HorrorLand: Creep from the Deep costs $34.99. The Library Edition CD costs $29.95. The hardcover is $14.85. The mass market paperback retails for $5.99. You do the math. And so, when you take a look at your local library’s audio book selection, you might not find much there.

I don’t believe that it’s just financial concerns that keep the library shelf selection of audio books small. There is a perception out there that reading from the printed page is the only kind of reading that counts. (This is a perennial discussion when it comes time for Summer Reading logs.) Susan writes near the end of her entry, “My next door teacher-neighbor has a quote that goes something like this, ‘Readers are made on the laps of their parents.’ Not all of our kids have parents who read. Not all of our kids have parents who speak, let alone read, English.” For these kids, especially, audio books may be a lifeline to literacy. Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows how much kids enjoy being read to, even those who have become far too cool in their advanced age (of 10 or 11) to admit it. I’ve seen it in family storytimes, when older siblings and cousins often accompany the little ones. Why wouldn’t you want a kid to be able to take that pleasure home?

In my small role buying materials for one neighborhood public library branch, I’ve been working to build up our audio book collection – from those chapter books on CD down to those picture-book-plus-CD sets. If you have the chance, won’t you help your local public or school library? Playaway books are available for purchase on the Playaway site (though you may want to make sure your particular library is able to circulate them), and books on CD are available pretty much anywhere books are sold. Or just make your voice heard: let the decision-makers in your community know that books are important, and audio books are important, too. Make sure they’re listening.