Sum­mer­time and the (book) lis­ten­ing is easy

Be­fore head­ing out on va­ca­tion, here are a few au­dio­books to bring along on a road trip

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - EMILY URQUHART

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.

NATALIA KURZOVA EVERST | DREAMSTIME

Tak­ing a long fam­ily road trip? Try load­ing up some au­dio­books to keep the whole fam­ily happy and en­ter­tained.

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