Reading by Ear: Stuart Little

Stuart Little by E. B. White
read by Julie Harris

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Honestly, I do try to vary my audiobooks, but, since I try to only revisit books I read before I was eighteen, I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel after five years of book blogging. It is a truth I do not like to acknowledge that I was not actually much of a reader as a kiddo, although I staunchly identified myself as such. Given the political nonfiction that overwhelmed Fort McBride’s libraries, the bulk of my childhood reading actually came from school.

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Reading by Ear: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
read by the author

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Readers, I’ve messed up. As I stated in the first installment of this feature, I only listen to audiobooks of books that I’ve read before. After shelving the umpteenth copy of the very lovely new editions of Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, I decided it was time to return to A Wrinkle in Time. I patiently waited for it to come in at the library. When I started listening, the familiar opening scene sprawled out before me…

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Reading by Ear: The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry
read by Ron Rifkin

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I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating, since it was such a significant moment in my development as a reader.

I read The Giver for the first time in middle school, when I was roughly around the same age as Jonas is when we begin the novel. I was already reading adult novels (we didn’t have a fancy thriving young adult industry when I was a kiddo, sonny jim!)at that age, so it wasn’t a particular challenge. What did challenge me was the ending. Something was clearly off about the strange, dreamy ending, but there wasn’t enough information for me to determine what happened. The author chose not to tell me what happened. My teacher couldn’t tell me what happened with any certainty.

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Reading by Ear: Redwall

Redwall by Brian Jacques
read by a full cast

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Since Reading by Ear is my reread feature, I will eventually begin eating my own tail and re-examining books that I’ve already written about here on the blog, but I’m trying to make a good faith effort to cover as many of the books that I read before college before I start doing that. Given my fickle memory, however, drawing up a complete list is pretty much impossible.

Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was a pleasant episode in my youth: convinced that the only books worthwhile were the ones in series, the seemingly endless Redwall books were a perfect complement to eating Ritz crackers and mild cheddar cheese after school. It’s such a sense memory for me that just listening to this made me want cheese. Although, to be fair, I always want to sit down with a little pot full of goat cheese, so it’s not like that’s hard or anything.

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Reading by Ear: Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
read by Hope Davis

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My geographically unstable childhood had, at least, one constant: heat. While it’s dry in southern California and humid here in Georgia, oppressive heat is such a part of my life that I am the most cold-blooded person you will ever meet. A friend, trying to explain how cold-blooded she was, held my hand as proof. “Your hands feel like mine do to other people,” she said. I’m very familiar with M&Ms liquifying in their shells, rearview mirrors melting off windshields, and the covers of paperback books detaching from their contents. One such book during middle school was a copy of Walk Two Moons. Stumbling across the audiobook at the public library, I realized I remembered very little about it, making it a perfect candidate for this feature.

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Reading by Ear: The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
read by Anton Lesser

Back in high school, I read the first three books of the Sally Lockhart Quartet in sort of a breathless week or so. I was still sorting out how to ferret out books I might like, and had hit upon the tactic of going through the back catalog of every writer I knew I liked. (This is no longer my approach to books, but it is my approach to music, which has, in recent months, helped me discover my love for The New York Dolls.) Philip Pullman, by virtue of His Dark Materials, was a prime candidate. I remembered them fondly but vaguely when I picked up this audiobook to revisit it, but perhaps I should have left it on the shelf…

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Reading by Ear: The Princess Diaries

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway

The Princess Diaries movie came out when I was ten, and I remember watching it. It was one of those live-action Disney movies that peppered my childhood, since grasping the concept of network television would take another five years. I liked it, as it involved Julie Andrews, San Francisco (I spent a lot of my single-digit years a few towns down), and Anne Hathaway, who, although I did not know it, was probably a factor in my thing for tall dark femmes. (In researching this post, I just learned that Liv Tyler was up for the role of Mia. My allegiances! They are being tested!) In any case, I did have and read the first one or two books in the series, but they didn’t make much of an impact, which made it a perfect candidate for an audiobook for me.

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Reading by Ear: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

In early high school, a generally abominable time filled with enormous bangs and the genial neglect known as “debate”, I bought myself a nice box set of His Dark Materials, the edition that spells out the name of the series when they’re all put together on the spine. They were (and are—I still own them) so pretty that I dared not take them to school, something I was happy to do with Wicked or Good Omens, which I reread constantly in high school. So I read The Amber Spyglass at night, all tucked into bed, handling the orange book delicately. Of course, it’s been long enough that I only remember the highlights, but it’s a nice memory all the same.

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Reading by Ear: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

I remember the first chapter of The Subtle Knife pretty well. I have a sneaking suspicion it was attached to the copy of The Golden Compass I was handed as a child, although it’s not in the editions I actually own. In any case, while I distinctly remember getting around to The Amber Spyglass in early high school, I think I did read The Subtle Knife in middle school, as the cover is familiar to me in an odd way. But the most likely thing is that I started, abandoned it, and actually read it in early high school when I revisited the entire series. My memory, man—sometimes it’s like solving a puzzle.

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Reading by Ear: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
performed by a full cast

I was first introduced His Dark Materials in middle school. A teacher lent me a copy of The Golden Compass, which I read, but I think I only adventured into The Subtle Knife a little. Later, I bought myself a nice box set of the series, which is when I read The Amber Spyglass. I remember sitting up in bed and finishing it, because I didn’t want to take the copies to school with me. After finishing up my Harry Potter relisten, I was starting to feel nostalgic for the series I read as a child. Be thankful there aren’t Babysitter’s Club audiobooks. (…or are there?)

The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights in the UK) takes place in a world different from ours, the chief difference being that people’s souls live outside them as animal spirits known as dæmons. Lyra, a young orphan who has been essentially half-raised and half-neglected by Jordan College in Oxford, saves her uncle Lord Asriel’s life when the Master of Jordan College tries to poison him. With this act and her impending coming of age, Lyra is pulled into a world of intrigue, child kidnappers, vile experiments, armored bears, witches, and, last but not least, the “golden compass” itself, a rare instrument that only Lyra can use to discover the truth.

I first read The Golden Compass a very long time ago, but the ending has always stuck with me. It may, in fact, be the reason I love desperate chases across icy tundras to this day. Besides the ambiguous ending of The Giver, which I read in middle school, this was the first book I read as a kid that actually had a downer ending. But it was the bitterness that made it all the more real, and that’s something Pullman seems to very conscious about doing. Lyra might be a child, but this isn’t a world that revolves at her level. There’s a brilliant moment where Lyra is concocting an escape plan, and Pullman points out that a child with imagination would realize that their chances were utterly hopeless. While Lyra is an engaging character, it’s often sheer luck and clever talk that propels her on her journey to save Roger, her best friend, from the child snatching Gobblers. The world Lyra inhabits is a real world, with cursing, religion, children’s skewed priorities, the awkwardness of growing up, and death.

The fact that the worldbuilding holds up very well definitely helps. The only truly fantastical elements are dæmons, witches, and talking armored bears; the rest is alternate history with a dash of steampunk to account for the zeppelins. (While a date corresponding with our world is never given, it feels very 1920s to me.) I’ve always been charmed by New France, I’m not going to lie. Pullman maintains the laws and limitations of his world and plays with them—the connection between people and their dæmons is an integral part of this novel, and you buy into it so much so that when we meet a witch’s dæmon, who can travel without his human, it does feel unnatural and violent to the reader. Worldbuilding, especially in children’s literature, can sometimes feel wobbly, so it’s delightful to find Pullman writing with a sure hand.

I’ve never found His Dark Materials as a whole to be particularly anti-religious, but I think that’s a discussion best left for when I get to The Amber Spyglass. But I was more interested this time in the class inequality in Lyra’s world. While it’s part of the setting that I don’t recall is particularly dealt with, I was very interested by the fact that servants always have dog dæmons. Lyra, whose parents are part of the aristocracy, has a remarkably elastic notion of class, as she’s still a child; she adjusts to every situation she’s thrust into. I’ll keep an eye on this as the series progresses and we meet people from our twentieth century.

This was my first full cast audio recording; I’d actually heard some of it before in this fantastic cut of the film adaptation’s deleted ending, although I didn’t know where it was from. Pullman reads the narration and, occasionally, the aliethometer. It was quite a fascinating experience, to have the characterizations provided by a whole cast. Joanna Wyatt is a sly, clever Lyra who also carries the emotional moments well. While some of the children are voiced by adult women (I was surprised to discover the woman who played Serafina Pekkala also played Roger!), the production does a fine job of utilizing actual children to make the proceedings sound more authentic. I did think Mrs. Coulter sounded a little too young, especially against Stan Barrett’s particularly gruff Lord Asriel. I look forward to finishing off the series with this cast and seeking out full cast productions for other audiobooks.

Bottom line: The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights based on your location!) is a sure-handed and deftly executed children’s book set in a very real world. Recommended.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.