Pushing the boundaries with children’s audio production

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What specific squawk would the cleverest raven in the universe make if she was in the middle of Ancient Egypt, on the run, and trying to find her way back to her time machine with her human companion? That is a very real post-production question we faced in the studio this week as our production team wove sound effects into our new editions of the Ladybird Audio Adventures.

Welcome to children’s audio publishing.

Children are perhaps listening more than they ever have done before. In June 2020, The National Literacy Trust reported that nearly 1 in 4 children and young people (23.4%) said that they had listened to audiobooks more than before the start of lockdown. Additionally, the Audio Publisher Association, in a US survey, found that the percentage of parents with children under 18 who say their children listened to audiobooks last year was 49%, up from 35% previously.

The market is clearly growing, and audio is more accessible than ever before, so the question is, how can we produce the right audiobooks for this emerging audience, and how can we keep them listening for the years to come? With brilliant content for children readily available through Netflix and other TV channels, and on iPads and computers at the flick of a finger, competition for attention is fierce, and the onus is on us as audio publishers to ensure that children’s titles are an engaging experience for new listeners.

For me personally, it starts with an exciting commissioning opportunity. Over the last few years at Penguin Random House, we have worked with Ladybird to create a new range of audio-only titles. These are books written exclusively for the audio format which means our brilliant authors, with the audio listener in mind, have been able to make music and sound effects an essential part of the narrative. The books are written as scripts, almost like a radio play or a film script, made for being read out loud, and the stories ensure lots of opportunities for creative sound effects. With the right narrator, such as the brilliant Ben Bailey Smith and Sophie Aldred, these books are as immersive as any TV show.

We started with the Ladybird Audio Adventures, which are non-fiction adventure stories, as we wanted to produce audiobooks that were a fun alternative to screen time with an educational hook. Think Dr Who crossed with David Attenborough. As the list grew, we published stories for bedtime, a practical guide to encourage mindfulness and audiobooks for children to learn new language skills. The opportunities are endless when you put the listener at the start of the process and as an audio publisher, it is so exciting to see books coming out now where the primary publishing aim is to reach the audio market.

Another way to push the boundaries in children’s audio comes in the post-production. Sound effects, musical cues and adaptations are essential in certain titles that don’t naturally translate to the audio format, such as picture books where the narrative is sometimes told through illustrations. There are other ways to create a completely new listening experience though. Take James and the Giant Peach for example. We wanted to change perspectives of what you could expect from an audio production with this book. So, we worked with some extremely talented producers, the incredible team at ID Audio, to produce our first binaural audiobook for children. In other words, 3D audio, which is like a surround-sound experience, played to you through your headphones so that it sounds like you are in the middle of the action. Imagine a peach rolling just past you!

These are just a couple of the opportunities that there are to innovate in audio and with the talent and experience of producers and editors in the audio industry you can see why a lot of people think audio is the most dynamic format in publishing.  

Oh, if you’re wondering about the raven; we cast a brilliant actress, Kristen Atherton, to read a squawk in every possible expression, from inquisitive to petulant and then added sfx over the top to bring Missy the Raven to life.

James Keyte is a Senior Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House, Audio. He was named a Bookseller Rising Star in 2020 and has published audio editions for authors including Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry and Bernardine Evaristo.

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  1. If anyone could pull off multiple interpretations of a raven squawk, that would be Kristin for sure.

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