© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Listen In: Audiobooks about Childhood Struggles

T. Gail Pritchard, Cynthia Szymanski Sunal, Amy Hawkins, Elizabeth Moore, and Jaime Snider Thompson

Childhood is a time of struggle as well as of play. Each of our lives is shaped by the struggles we encounter and the solutions we find.1Teachers are often called on to assist children define their personal and interpersonal struggles, understand them, and resolve them through appropriate and reflective decision making. There are many resources available to help elementary students explore these struggles and their resolution. Elsewhere in this issue are articles on conflict resolution (page 20) and trade books about children’s rights (page 24). We would like to focus on a medium that is not always at the top of the traditional resource list: the audiobook.

Audiobooks should be considered a “natural complement” to trade books and in some cases may be used instead of a trade book.2 Beers describes four ways that audiobooks might be used in a unit of study: as an introduction to a story, as support reading for second-language learners or remedial readers, as a way to develop a “reader’s ear” (the ability to hear what printed text sounds like even while reading silently), and as a motivational tool.3

In addition, audiobooks can be enjoyed in several different settings. An audiobook can be played for the whole class, and if enough copies of a particular trade book is available, each child could read the page as the audiobook plays. Or the teacher could establish a listening center where children listen to the audiobook (possibly through headphones) while following the words on the page. Or the teacher could send an audiobook and trade book home with individual children to create a home-to-school connection. Depending on the purpose and the availability of the trade books, all of these options provide the opportunity for teachers to integrate audiobooks and trade books within their everyday teaching.

There are also advantages to the fact that audiobooks are “listened to” instead of silently read. By listening to professional storytellers, students have the advantage of hearing appropriate phrasing and, in some stories, different dialects spoken.4 “Professional narrator[s], bringing finely honed dramatic skills to an interpretation of the text, can generate excitement and captivate a wide spectrum of listeners….”5 Further, students, especially second language speakers and struggling readers, are helped through audiobooks to “improve their vocabulary, their usage, and their comprehension.”6 In short, audiobooks are a valuable tool for both teachers and students, and according to Baskin and Harris, “if an authentic book is equivalent to its contents and not to its format, then audiobooks have a legitimacy equal to that of printed works.”7

In the box to the right, we have listed some recommended audiobooks for the elementary classroom. Any one of these could be used as the basis of a social studies lesson on finding a creative solution to a childhood struggle.



1. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963).

2. P. Austin and K. Harris, “The Audio Argument, or Sound Advice about Literature,” The New Advocate 12, no. 3 (1999): 242; R. Cox, “Audiotaped Versions of Children’s Stories,” Children’s Literature in Education 12, no.1 (1996): 23-33.

3. K. Beers, “Listen While You Read: Struggling Readers and Audiobooks” School Library Journal (April, 1998).

4. B. H. Baskin and K. Harris “Heard Any Good Books Lately? The Case for Audiobooks in the Secondary Classroom,” Journal of Reading 38, no. 5, (1995): 372-376; P. Austin and K. Harris.

5. Baskin and Harris, 373.

6. Beers, 32.

7. Baskin and Harris, 373.

8. Most of the audiotapes listed in this article are produced by Listening Library, Greenwich, CT. (800) 243-4504, www.listeninglib.com. Our Sixth Grade Sugar Babies is produced by Recorded Book Productions, New York, (800) 638-1304, www.recordedbooks.com. The publishers of the original trade books are listed on the audiobook jacket covers.

About the Authors

T. Gail Pritchard is an assistant professor of Literacy Education and Cynthia Szymanski Sunal is a professor and program chair of Elementary Education in the College of Education at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Elizabeth Moore is a student at the University of Alabama. Amy Hawkins teaches fourth grade at Sulligent School, Lamar County Schools, Alabama. Jaime Snider Thompson teaches fifth grade at Englewood School, Tuscaloosa County Schools, Alabama.

Audio Books


Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, read by Elden Henson (3 hours, 16 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1998).

Maxwell Kane does not fit in with his peers because he is large and his father is a criminal. Then he meets, “Freak,” a new neighbor, who teaches him all about life and using your brain as well as your brawn.


Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, read by Anne Bobby (6 hours, 56 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1999).

Harriet Welsch wants to be a writer, so she decides to keep a notebook with her observations of neighbors and classmates, a decision that lands her in hot water when her notebook is discovered.


Holes by Louis Sachar, read by Kerry Beyer (4 hours, 30 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1999).

Stanley Yelnats has made some poor decisions in his life, but this time he is determined to do what is right. He decides to go after his friend, Zero, in the arid desert surrounding the juvenile detention camp where both have been sent.


The Kid Who Only Hit Homers by Matt Christopher, read by a full cast (1 hour, 40 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1994).

On his way home from baseball tryouts, Sylvester meets George, and with George’s guidance, he becomes the “kid who only hits homers.” Just as mysteriously as George appeared, George disappears, leaving Sylvester struggling to maintain his new-found ability, fame, and confidence.


Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park, read by Dana Lubotsky (1 hour, 42 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1998).

Through telling the story of her younger brother’s life and preventable death, Phoebe struggles to overcome her grief and the changes his death has wrought in her family.


Our Sixth-Grade Sugar Babies by Eve Bunting, read by Christina Moore (3 hours, 25 minutes). (New York: Recorded Book Productions, 1998).

Part of growing up is learning to make wise decisions; the only problem is that Vicki has made one bad decision after another. Convincing her mother that she is responsible enough to baby-sit her stepsister proves nearly impossible.


Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, read by Marika Washburn (2 hours, 9 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1998).

Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo lives in Oklahoma, the “dust bowl,” during the mid 1930s. Her difficult life becomes even more trying when an accidental fire kills her mother, leaving her with burned hands and unable to play the piano, which had been a rare joy. Billie Joe hops on a freight train to escape her circumstances, but the new territory she discovers lies within.


Shadow of a Bull by Maia
Wojciechowska, read by Francisco Rivela (3 hours, 34 minutes). (Greenwich, CT: Listening Library, 1997).

Manolo Olivar makes a decision not to follow in the footsteps of his famous bullfighting father, but how will he explain that decision to his mother and the village elders?