Why the audio boom needs to create change in children’s audiobooks

The pandemic boom in the audio market has given publishing a renewed buzz around the format. I experienced it myself being at home with my two children aged 4 and 7 in 2020. Desperate that they get away from screens but still needing them to be entertained so I could continue to grow my inclusive book packager Storymix… Audiobooks were a life saver but… is this audio space as inclusive and representative as it could be? It got me thinking, as so much of my work as a producer or writer is about inclusion and bringing kids of colour to the centre of narratives. At the same time, an opportunity came up to become a research fellow as part of Bristol + Bath Creative R&D’s Amplified Publishing programme. I jumped at the chance.

About Amplified Publishing

Amplified Publishing is part of Bristol + Bath Creative R&D’s aim to explore opportunities into making publishing more inclusive, creative and collaborative by researching future models of content creation, discovery and distribution. In practical terms it means I get access to our cohort’s combined experience in publishing, the video game and entertainment sector, the online broadcasting sector and the technology sector to create a new vision for storytelling that moves beyond traditional print, and envision a possible future for reading in the face of the rise of visual storytelling.

I was interested in applying for this as a content creator for children because listening to fiction on cassettes was so important for my intellectual development as a child, and I know that there’s a huge lack of diverse voices and content in the children’s audio market. As publishers, we should be taking note of where our content is lacking in its ability to reflect all children and working to build pathways to address this deficit. I think the best way to do this is to invest in the future of storytelling, by understanding all the forms of stories that children have access to.

My research

Through my time on this research strand, I really want to explore inclusive and equitable creation and consumption of audio content in children’s publishing. As far as I’m concerned, the status quo currently in children’s audio publishing is that:

  • Creators, producers and narrators of children’s audio content tend to be white, southern and speak RP (Received Pronunciation), meaning children from other backgrounds don’t hear themselves in this space. What does that mean for their enjoyment of those stories?
  • High quality narrative audio content is currently expensive, and quality free content created in the UK is limited. Good audio experience is aimed at the middle classes – how do we make audio more equitable?
  • Audio is a great tool for teaching reading, especially when alongside the written text. What other ways can we ensure audio experiences are delivering an emotional and educational benefit as well as delivering amazing storytelling?

I’m going to test and explore all these assumptions through my research to try and understand why these barriers are still in place and what exactly publishing needs to do to readdress this imbalance.

Then I hope to make a protype of the kind of audio experience that I feel that is missing.

What this means for publishers

Hopefully, exploring and raising awareness of this deficit will get publishers thinking about who really is the best narrator for each story. As James Faktor points out in his article for BookMachine, focusing on what brings out the most unique aspect of the story is key in deciding on a narrator, and in employing regional narrators: ‘The authenticity of having a local narrate the story will enhance the realism of the surroundings and is a unique attribute of audio content that can add real poignancy for the listener.’

Why is this commitment to authenticity and poignancy missing in children’s audiobooks? Why aren’t more voices present and given the opportunity to tell stories in their own voices?

As important as it is for children to be able to see themselves in books, they also need to be able to hear themselves too. While there have been some great narrators of colour within adult audiobooks, like Dion Graham and Cary Hite, and a recent New York Times article demonstrated the recent shift towards employing narrators of colour in more white-dominated genres, no such shift appears to have taken place in children’s audio.

So if, as a children’s publisher, you’re working on diversifying your list and taking the leap into the  children’s audio market – a format that surged during the early days of the pandemic, according to The Guardian – you not only need to consider who is the right narrator for each individual story, but whether it’s really going to be accessible to all children, in all ways. Is working with that retailer or that platform really going to reach the ears you want it to reach? And if it does, is it going to sound like someone they can relate to? It’s important for all children to experience a variety of voices and perspectives, and if we as publishers want all children to grow up with a love of books, we must make sure they can hear stories that include the variety and diversity of the world we live in.

If you’d like to find out more about the research programme, visit the Amplified Publishing programme website and I’ll be updating my socials with my research findings at the end of the fellowship.

Finally, a callout. If you are an expert in audio and fancy a Zoom coffee sometime, I’d love to have a chat about my research and pushing the envelope when it comes to creating new audio narrative experiences for kids. You can reach me via my website www.jasminerichards.com or at www.storymix.co.uk.

Jasmine Richards has worked in children’s publishing for over 15 years and written over a dozen books for children ranging from picture books to teen fiction. Her most recent book is called Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door, written under the pen name Lola Morayo. She is also a screenwriter on Disney’s PJ Masks.
Jasmine is the founder of Storymix, a children’s book incubator with a social purpose. We create stories with inclusive casts of characters. All children, regardless of background, get to be the heroes in our stories. She is actively seeking writers from underrepresented backgrounds to write for Storymix. It doesn’t matter if you are published, unpublished or self-published she’d love to hear from you!


Responses

  1. I totally agree with you, there should be audio books for children.

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