Summertime and the (book) listening is easy
Before heading out on vacation, here are a few audiobooks to bring along on a road trip
Summertime, for all its promise of lazy sunny days and lakeside frolic, often means travelling long distances in the car with your children.
In my road trip experience, one child requires attention (“Are we there yet? I need the toilet. I’m hungry … etc.”), while two or more children can transform the back seat into a gladiator arena. At the onset of July, with endless stretches of highway between me and our desired summer locales, I invested in several recent children’s audiobooks in an attempt quell the gladiators, and with the hope of entertaining the adults in the front seat, too. We began with, Look out for the Fitz
gerald-Trouts by Canadian-American author Esta Spalding, the first book in a trilogy, the most recent instalment having been released this June. If we liked this one, I reasoned, there would be two more in queue. It’s the story of four siblings living out of a beat-up green car on an idyllic tropical island, abandoned there by a rotating cast of up to five different parents.
In the schoolyard, the FitzgeraldTrout kids use a stick in the sand to draw a family tree in an effort to explain how they’re related. Although I never entirely understood which children belonged with which parents, I did relate, as will any child or adult whose families are far from nuclear.
The children have two terrible mothers who occasionally show up to drop off (not enough) money and to complain about how busy they are. One mother is so vulgarly bejewelled in diamonds that, in the island sun, it actually hurts the children to look directly at her, a wickedly delightful detail.
The siblings are anchored by sensible, 11-year-old Kim, a child who learned to drive by tying stew-cans to her feet in order to reach the pedals. Kim realizes that the children have outgrown their car and the ultimate theme of the book is the search for a new home. Along the journey, both parents and adults will snicker at the various side treks, such as when the children misguidedly choose to settle in an IKEA-esque Swiss furniture store called MARRA, with its perfect but unusable showrooms. Look out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts is a sweet ride and the various ages of the siblings mean that kids will have at least one child protagonist they most identify with. The narrator, Caitlin Kelly, has a bubbly, child-friendly voice, as if one of the Paw Patrol pups were telling this story, and it worked to immediately draw the attention of even the smallest member of the back seat, my 4-year-old, who understood the premise but likely missed some of the finer points.
Presenting him with the more complex audiobook, The Strangers, the first in the Greystone Secrets, a new series by bestselling children’s author Margaret Peterson Haddix, was more of a stretch. Narrated by award-winning voice-over artist, Jorjeana Marie, it’s the story of three siblings, Chess, Emma and Finn Greystone who live with their mother, their father having passed away eight years before.
As the audiobook begins, there’s a news report of three kidnapped children in another part of the country. The bizarre twist is that the missing children have the same first and middle names and the same birthdates as the three Greystone kids. Even stranger is their mother’s reaction to the news item — complete devastation.
Next, their mother disappears on a work trip leaving the children in the care of Ms. Morales, a woman she’d deemed reasonable after sharing PTA duties with her, so basically, a near-stranger.
After some smartphone snooping, it’s soon clear to the Greystones that their mother is not travelling for business, and, more troubling, that she may be in danger. On a return trip home to feed their cat, Rocket, the children, along with Natalie, Ms. Morales’s teenage daughter who is charged with their care, discover a secret room off their mother’s office, stocked with canned goods and oodles of cash. “Was your mom a Doomsday prepper?” asks Natalie, in what was my favourite line in the book, followed closely by her deduction that it wasn’t possible because, “Doomsday preppers think paper money will be worthless when society collapses.” The Doomsday allusion isn’t just a line, however, as the foursome discover the room is a portal to an alternate universe where life is grim (I pictured communist Russia but you’ll imagine your own hellscape) and their mother is in deep trouble.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it there, but suffice it to say the layered plot had enough magic and suspense that we all forgot about the four lanes of traffic and the long road ahead en route to visit the grandparents.
Our next voyage was only two hours long, as we drove my daughter to summer camp for the first time. Emotions were high (excitement for my daughter; sheer terror for me) and for this reason, we needed a truly enchanting story. I chose The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp, by George Saunders, an author whose adult offerings, Tenth of
December, and Lincoln in the Bardo, among others, have transported me before. George, I thought, as we sped north through the farm fields of Grey County, I’m relying on you to distract me from my parental anxiety ( What if her bunkmates are mean? Will she apply sun
screen regularly?) and engage and delight both my children despite their age gap because my nerves can’t handle fighting today. No. Fighting. Got that, George?
Thankfully, he did get it. Actually, he nailed it. Saunders narrates the book himself and does so with seemingly casual effortlessness, as if you’re listening to your wise uncle spin a yarn while sitting on his back porch. The audiobook runs about 40 minutes, a nice switch from the four to eight hours that chapter books consume.
The Gappers of the title are tennis-ball sized pests that love goats and emit a horrible high-pitched squeal of glee when they attach themselves to the animals. The children of Fripp, a threehouse village by the sea, are tasked with brushing the Gappers off the goats and back into the ocean, which exhausts the kids, but which is necessary, otherwise the goats will stop producing milk, stop eating and fall over — not dead, but from mortification. Then, the villagers will have no income as they rely on selling their goat milk in the nearest town.
It’s a fable of neighbourly duty and co-existence and it shares DNA with the folk tale The Little Red Hen, but the Saunders story is wilder, more magical, and definitely funnier. There’s a sandin-the-underpants scene for the kids, and a ridiculous explainer of teenage hormones for the parents.
Finally, during quieter moments at home, we listened and re-listened to
How to Read a Book, a short poem by award-winning American poet and children’s book author, Kwame Alexander.
The poem doesn’t instruct, as the title suggests, but instead illuminates the limitlessness of reading; how it can take place anywhere and be anything. I’m presently planning our listening for the rest of the summer and top of my list is Alexander’s much-lauded basketball themed novel-in-verse, The Crossover, which seems the perfect pick to prolong our bliss, following the Toronto Raptors NBA win.
How to Read a Book was written in summer, Alexander tells us in a note that follows the poem, a time when he’d spent many hours reading and re-reading books with his then 2-year-old daughter.
“Now, sleep./ dream./ hope./ (you never reach)/ the end,” he says in the last verse, and, it struck me that this sentiment could extend to our feelings about summer and, also, about childhood.
We dream, hope, that both will never end.
Taking a long family road trip? Try loading up some audiobooks to keep the whole family happy and entertained.