Listen, Slowly (and Carefully)
I typically read one book at a time, occasionally two books at a time, but when I read for an award committee, I feel the pressure to always be reading, and so I will often have three to four books going on at the same time, constantly picking up books and putting them down throughout the year. I’ve often had the opportunity to pick up a book that wasn’t working for me previously only to be enchanted on a second chance. What happened? It’s hard to say. Was I simply in the right mood? Did I have fewer distractions? Was I able to read the book in bigger chunks? Was I less worried about what had happened just prior or just after my reading session?
There’s nothing that I enjoy more than reading the physical book, but increasingly I find the necessity of taking advantage of e-books and audiobooks to mitigate the reading load. It’s harder to do the close reading that award committee reading demands on an e-book reader. You really do need to be able to move back and forth through the text with greater facility, especially if your note-taking process demands it. I personally find audiobooks an acquired taste. My attention tends to wander more often than I’d like, especially because I listen to them during my commute. I’m also hard of hearing and have to exert even more attention than a normal person, especially if the book has accents. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to do a significant chunk of my Heavy Medal reading via audiobooks.
But given this line in the Newbery criteria–
The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound or film equipment) for its enjoyment.
–we should be very careful about “reading” with e-books and audiobooks. I’d definitely want to have one reading of the book completed before trying one of these alternative formats, and I’d want to make sure my discussion at the table was focused on the book rather than the format. Given the fatigue and ennui that can set in when you’re reading an overwhelming amount of books, a different format can give you another entry point into a book you’re struggling with and give you a greater appreciation for one that you already like.
LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai is the follow-up to the Newbery Honor book, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN. By most accounts, this is a well written book with good characters that loses its way during the middle stretch of the plot. I’d probably agree with that assessment, but I became so enraptured by the narrator who perfectly captured the voice of the young main character, but could also segue with ease to the accented speech of older generations, not to mention the Vietnamese words and phrases which on the page might appear strange and foreign but had a pleasing musicality. If the plot stalled in the middle of the book, the audiobook helped me realize that it was important for this girl to absorb the physical experience of her homeland, not just the sensory experiences, but the people and their culture; it provided needed contrast to the Americanization of the preteen narrator. And it helped me to realize that I would probably read this book very differently from a Vietnamese-American child.
The audiobook may not have convinced me that this is the most distinguished book of the year, but it helped me to appreciate the strengths that other people might see in the book, and it helped me to filter out my Jonathan-centric reading of it.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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