Autumn Allen

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Kwame Alexander’s Ghana-set historical middle grade novel, The Door of No Return (3.5 hours), unfolds from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy named Kofi, whose story focuses on his family, his village and a special girl named Ama. Ghanaian British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith brings spellbinding intensity and strong, authentic accents to his narration, breathing life into both the young narrator and his storytelling grandfather. Well-performed side characters provide the backdrop, and the humorous nasal tone of the culturally brainwashed schoolteacher brings comic relief.

Holdbrook-Smith emphasizes the rhythm of Alexander’s novel, much of it told in verse, with charming, dramatic and aesthetic effects that endear Kofi to the listener. At times, listeners must pay close attention, as the story moves quickly, and names, dates and section titles run the risk of being missed, but listeners will be rewarded for their efforts.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘The Door of No Return.’

Ghanaian British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith brings spellbinding intensity and strong, authentic accents to his narration of Kwame Alexander’s novel, breathing life into both the young narrator and his storytelling grandfather.
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Inviting author Susan Cain to read her own audiobook for Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (7.5 hours) was an excellent choice. As a meditation on the importance of melancholy, the book requires just the right amount of energy—enthusiasm, even—to keep listeners forging ahead. With her easygoing, conversational pace and a voice full of curiosity and optimism, Cain convinces us that pushing past any ambivalence about sorrow will be rewarding.

The author narrates her personal anecdotes with fondness, bemusement and fascination. Her interviews feel like exciting scenes in a story, and she brings listeners right along on these encounters. It sounds as if she wrote the book to be read aloud.

Fans of lectures by thought leaders such as Brené Brown will enjoy Bittersweet immensely, finding much to ponder about the role of intense emotion in our search for human connection.

Read more: 4 gentle guides for healing, including ‘Bittersweet.’

It seems like Bittersweet was made to be an audiobook. Author Susan Cain narrates with fondness, bemusement and fascination, convincing listeners to forge ahead in this meditation on the importance of melancholy.
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Bestselling YA fantasy author Sabaa Tahir’s first contemporary novel, All My Rage (10.5 hours), is told from three points of view, and each character gets their own voice actor in the audiobook production. Narrators Kamran R. Khan, Kausar Mohammed and Deepti Gupta bring personality and insight to their performances, contributing to the believability of this heavy, beautiful novel. At the same time, each actor maintains a similar tone of dramatic suspense to build a cohesive listening experience. 

Khan narrates as Sal—a high school student challenged by his academic situation, his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s illness—in a voice deep with suppressed feeling, conveying an almost hypnotic sense of impending doom. Noor, Sal’s former friend and would-be love interest, is energetically brought to life through Mohammed’s gravelly voice. Misbah, Sal’s mother, performed by Gupta, has the wistful, accented voice of a wiser, middle-aged immigrant who’s weak with illness. 

Each actor reads in a measured pace that allows listeners to envision the scenes and feel the weight of the characters’ emotions and relationships. This is a riveting production that most readers won’t want to end.

Narrators Kamran R. Khan, Kausar Mohammed and Deepti Gupta bring personality and insight to their performances, contributing greatly to the believability of Sabaa Tahir's heavy, beautiful novel.
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In The World Belonged to Us, prolific and acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson transports readers on a nostalgic journey to a summer in Brooklyn “not so long ago.”

The first-person narrator evokes the world of her childhood through sensory details as well as reflections on the thoughts and feelings of her younger self, offering a joyful vision of a time in her life when the future seemed bright and full of possibility. Summer begins when someone opens a fire hydrant, soaking children who are already giddy with new freedom as they walk home on the last day of school. Every sunny day after, “from the end of breakfast to the beginning of dinner,” kids play a marvelous litany of games: double Dutch, kick the can, stickball, tag, hide-and-seek and more. They chase the ice cream truck and share frozen treats with friends. Sometimes knees get scraped, but older kids tell reassuring stories until “hurt knees [are] forgotten.”

Pura Belpré Honor illustrator Leo Espinosa (Islandborn) depicts a vibrant and diverse neighborhood filled with lots of visual callouts to the 1970s, from the cars to everyone’s groovy hairstyles and clothes. Colors, patterns and styles popular during this period abound, including mustard yellows, avocado greens, plaid bell-bottom pants and knee-high white socks worn with tennis shoes and athletic shorts. Adult readers will even pick up on a throwback vibe of the bubbly typeface used on the cover and throughout the book.

Young readers will find The World Belonged to Us to be far more engaging than a generic lecture about “the good old days.” It’s an immersive, hyperspecific invitation for readers from different generations to form connections with each other, fueled by the unmistakable, joyful energy of childhood summers. Adults should be prepared to share stories about what summer was like when they were young after reading this bright and emotionally engaging book.

Jacqueline Woodson and Leo Espinosa offer a joyful vision of a time when the future seemed bright and full of possibility in The World Belonged to Us, a nostalgic ode to summer.
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British author Bernardine Evaristo narrates the audiobook of her inspirational memoir, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (6 hours). She reads in a measured, clear voice and steady, unwavering tone that serve some parts of the book more than others. When she tells stories—episodes of her childhood in a biracial home, for example—or connects identity, politics and creativity with truths that resonate especially with creatives of color, the clarity of her narration enhances the listening experience. However, her slow pace and lack of variation in tone cause other sections to drag, especially when they’re not as relevant to the inspirational theme at the heart of the book. Some listeners may prefer to play this audiobook at an increased speed, perhaps while engaged in other activities, so as not to lose momentum.

For focused listeners seeking an audiobook for edification, not for leisure or relaxation, Manifesto is a smart choice.

Read our review of the print edition of ‘Manifesto.’

For focused listeners seeking an audiobook for edification, not for leisure or relaxation, Manifesto is a smart choice.
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In How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (9 hours), Michael Schur, creator of “The Good Place” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” explores philosophical questions about how humans define good character and behavior and how to achieve it. The audiobook is read mostly by the author, whose well-paced, attentive narration keeps his humorous, personality-driven (albeit sometimes meandering) content clear and engaging.

Actors from “The Good Place” comprise the audiobook’s remaining cast, with Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Marc Evan Jackson, Jameela Jamil and even philosophy professor Todd May (who had a cameo on the show) bringing distinctive tones, attitudes and comedic gravitas to their performances.

This is a lively audio production for thoughtful readers interested in questions of goodness (“Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?”), and it’s perfect for listening in both spurts or over a single long stretch. How to Be Perfect turns serious questions into playful thought exercises to aid in making better decisions with less angst.

With guest appearances from the cast of “The Good Place,” this is a lively audio production for thoughtful readers interested in moral dilemmas.
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Debut author Jetta Grace Martin joins forces with scholars Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. to present the fascinating history of an iconic group of Americans in Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party. The result is a work of narrative nonfiction that will engage and challenge teen readers. 

The book opens by introducing the party’s co-founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and depicting their early confrontations with police forces, in which they displayed independence that the Black community in the United States had not seen before. Engaging sections unfold in linear fashion and depict the formation, work and eventual fall of the party. 

The authors expertly integrate pivotal moments for the organization, such as the Panthers’ early support of the family of Denzil Dowell, who was killed by Mel Brunkhorst, a sheriff’s deputy. Inclusion of events such as the Watts rebellion of 1965, a six-day period of unrest sparked by the police beating of the mother of a man arrested for a DUI in a mostly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, enables readers to understand the circumstances that energized Black communities during the 1960s and set the stage for a group like the Black Panthers, who could direct such powerful frustrations into a movement.

Throughout the book, the authors incorporate drama and suspense without sacrificing accuracy or integrity. Freedom! makes full use of the authors’ extensive research and frequently incorporates both quotations and photographs. The book’s back matter includes a timeline, a glossary and 15 pages of endnotes to support the book’s notably positive depiction of the Panthers’ accomplishments. 

The Black Panthers used a variety of methods and strategies to accomplish their goals, and their shifting tactics offer food for thought to a new generation of young people contemplating which coalitions, programs and techniques will help them become effective changemakers. Freedom! positions the Panthers within “the long freedom struggle” against not only all forms of racism also but imperialism and capitalism. It’s a thorough, thought-provoking and entertaining investigation into one of the most significant movements in 20th-century American history.

By incorporating drama and suspense without sacrificing accuracy or integrity, the authors of Freedom! have created a narrative history that engages and challenges.
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The essay collection Black Nerd Problems (8 hours) presents the opinions of William Evans and Omar Holmon, creators of the website by the same name. The two explore geek culture topics ranging from the frivolous to the serious, from the shifting definition of nerd to deep dives into Black superheroes.

The think pieces in this collection beg to be read aloud, and Evans and Holmon deliver high-energy performances with humor and verve, making this audiobook a real treat for fans of pop culture critique. It won’t surprise anyone to discover that the authors are poets as well, and the conviction behind each of their declarations makes the listener feel like they’re hearing a lively podcast or sitting around a table arguing with friends.

Whether you disagree with their opinions, find them insightful and thought-provoking or are indifferent to the subject matter, you will undoubtedly be entertained by Evans and Holmon’s performance.

The authors of this essay collection perform their audiobook with humor and verve. It’s a real treat for fans of popular culture critique.
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For Tarana Burke, the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 was a unique emotional journey. As the founder of the movement, she reacted to the use of the hashtag on social media—initially without her awareness or involvement—with alarm, dismay and fear. But she soon moved beyond her protective instinct to a place of gratitude and openness, as she recognized how people were benefiting from the phrase’s transformative power. 

Burke narrates these moments in her memoir, Unbound (7 hours), then goes back in time to her childhood experience of sexual assault and her journey to liberation and activism. Her steady, grounded voice commands the listener’s attention and moves us through time, through emotions, through visceral experiences and psychological breakthroughs. The pain, confusion, vulnerability and, ultimately, power in her story are rendered all the more potent and compelling by her confident voice, distinguishing Burke as a woman who has found her strength and her path to help others heal. This is a listening experience not to be missed.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Unbound.’

In the audio edition of Unbound, the pain, confusion, vulnerability and power in Tarana Burke’s story are rendered all the more potent by her confident voice.
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It’s hard to believe that author Dawn Turner isn’t the narrator of her memoir, Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood (12 hours); the woman reading the audiobook sounds so honest as she recalls growing up in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago that surely she must be Turner. But award-winning voice actor Janina Edwards’ confident storytelling commands attention and enhances the tale. Her wise, knowing tone allows the listener to fall under the spell of the story, envisioning each episode and trusting that the details will weave together meaningfully.

The listener is transported into the past to experience the closeness of Turner’s family, the excitement of growing up together and the emotional toll of their disparate fates. With a range of tones and speech patterns, Edwards acts out the truths of Turner’s life, from the memorable words of both child and adult personalities to the clear, precise diction of a person raised with strict insistence upon proper speech. This remarkable audio production intrigues and entertains.

Listeners will fall under the spell of Dawn Turner’s memoir through Janina Edwards’ confident storytelling and wise, knowing tone.
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Two picture books explore the art and craft of writing and storytelling, offering advice and encouragement for budding young writers.

In How to Make a Book (About My Dog), Chris Barton answers a question that children often ask him when he visits schools as a children’s author: “How do you make your books?” 

Barton guides readers through the process from start to finish in great detail, using his dog, Ernie, as a hypothetical subject for a nonfiction picture book. He begins by discussing the research he must do even when he’s working on a familiar topic. He describes drafting and revision, explains how illustrators come on board and contribute, and then ends with the nitty-gritty of copyediting, printing and shipping books. Along the way, he introduces the team of people who help to transform ideas into books that readers can hold in their hands, including literary agents, editors, art directors, typesetters, proofreaders, publicists, warehouse employees and more. 

How to Make a Book (About My Dog) perfectly addresses the intense curiosity many children have about the mechanics of writing and publishing a book while shining a light on many stages in the process to which readers are not often privy. Barton’s narration is engaging and full of personality, and Ernie becomes a fun character in his own right. The book’s extensive back matter provides a detailed timeline that reveals exactly how long it took to create this very book, beginning when Barton and his family adopted Ernie from a rescue organization and touching on an early concept for a different book that ultimately didn’t work out. 

Illustrator Sarah Horne dramatizes each step with bright, cartoonlike scenes and characters. Infographics, panels and charts; arrows, stars and other visual icons; and a wide variety of hand-lettered fonts transform what could be a dry nonfiction text into a friendly and appealing journey. This guide showcases the challenging but rewarding work of bookmaking with humor and optimism.

Author (and BookPage contributor) Deborah Hopkinson and illustrator Hadley Hooper’s The Story of a Story takes a poetic approach to the question of where inspiration comes from. In rhythmic free verse, Hopkinson addresses a child with “endless curiosity, / and a deep longing / to create, to write, / to say something about the world—to tell a story.” 

Hooper’s illustrations show the child coming inside on a snowy day, taking off their coat, hat and boots, and sitting down at a table in front of a big window. Everything the child needs is at hand: paper, pencils, a snack and even a faithful dog at their feet, but “the words won’t come.” Darkness falls and crumpled papers pile up around the table. While taking a break to eat a cookie, the child notices a chickadee outside the window who is also eating. Inspiration doesn’t so much strike as emerge slowly, and the child returns to the blank page, picks up their pencil and begins again, writing “just one word. And then another.”

Hopkinson’s use of the second person gives the text an intimate feel, and her short sentences draw readers into the push and pull of the blank page, capturing the way that inspiration is so often a series of starts and stops. Hooper uses a spare color palette dominated by blues and whites, with occasional pops of yellow, brown and red, conveying both the wintry setting and suggesting the calm stillness of mind required for creativity to flow. 

As much about perseverance as it is about creativity and storytelling, The Story of a Story has a wonderful focus on process over product. It offers lovely encouragement to young writers, urging them to push beyond obstacles in their paths and discover the stories that only they can tell. 

Two picture books explore the art and craft of writing and storytelling, offering advice and encouragement for budding young writers.
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Five new picture books teach young readers about the struggles and triumphs of black people living in America.

James E. Ransome, a prolific and award-winning illustrator, proves that his words are just as powerful as his art in The Bell Rang. Ransome’s free verse follows a week in the life of a young girl who begins and ends each day with her loving family. As slaves on a plantation, the family faces difficulty and danger, but they also have joy, love and community—things we don’t often associate with the lives of the enslaved. The striking artwork captures cuddles and kisses, smiles and games, gift-giving and preaching. Natural colors, silhouettes, expressive faces and the use of the implied space beyond the page bring the enslaved community to life. The family’s routine is interrupted when the narrator’s brother runs away and a search is called; dogs are pictured and a whip is mentioned, but violence is not pictured. Overall, this is a unique and valuable story that centers on the endurance and humanity of enslaved people, and ends on a firm note of hope.

How exciting can a story about a female postal worker be? Very exciting, if it’s Tami Charles’ Fearless Mary: The True Adventures of Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver. Mary Fields, a former slave, rode into the segregated Wild West alone in 1895. When she saw an opening for a stagecoach driver to deliver mail and packages into the mountains, she knew she was qualified and could handle the dangers of the job. Charles’ action-packed text sets Fields’ stunning achievements against the historical backdrop in order to shape a thrilling story that shows another side of America’s western expansion. Claire Almon’s illustrations have an animationlike aesthetic that serves the story well, keeping the pace moving. Readers will watch with amazement as Fields uses her reading skills, her trained eagle and her weapon to excel at her daring job, never losing a package.

Carole Boston Weatherford’s verse and Frank Morrison’s graffiti-inspired art form a winning combination in The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. Reaching back past DJ Kool Herc, the book begins with “Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals” and the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Weatherford then nods to James Brown and funk before painting a portrait of New York City’s rap scene in the 1970s and beyond. The rhythmic text simply begs to be read aloud—but don’t turn the pages too quickly, as the rich, expressive art deserves to be savored. With glowing brown skin tones, warm reds and cool blues, Morrison immortalizes key figures and scenes of the musical genre’s lineage and its attendant art forms, including graffiti and break dancing. Children will delight in this book’s immersive sights and sounds, while adults will smile with recognition at how old-school names connect to the language of today’s hip-hop.

In Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins, young readers can learn about children between the ages of 6 and 17 who staged protests in 1958 with the help of an inspiring educator named Clara Luper. Luper taught young people about speaking up, and as a leader in the NAACP, she taught the steps of nonviolent action. With some trepidation, she supported a group of young people as they forged ahead with their demonstrations, insisting that “someday is now.” Jade Johnson’s illustrations make the protests accessible, and the meaty text addresses the difficulty of standing up, the sweet rewards that can follow and the need to keep going after a win. It’s perfect inspiration for our difficult times.

Janet Collins was the first African-American prima ballerina for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and her success in dance was all the more satisfying because of the obstacles she overcame along the way. In lyrical verse, Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows takes readers through Collins’ path: her supportive family, her mother who paid for her lessons by sewing costumes, a dance class that would not accept her because she was black and one ballet teacher who did. Ebony Glenn’s illustrations lend impact to each moment: sadness when Collins is accepted into a dance company and then told to lighten her skin, hope when she finds a class, and finally joy when she dances on stage in 1951—with her natural skin tone. The graceful lines of the illustrations will have young ballet fans twirling and, more importantly, believing that hard work pays off. There is an abundance of ballet-themed children’s books, but few are as delightful as this one.


This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Five new picture books teach young readers about the struggles and triumphs of black people living in America. James E. Ransome, a prolific and award-winning illustrator, proves that his words are just as powerful as his art in The Bell Rang. Ransome’s free verse follows a week in the life of a young girl who […]
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To foster a fruitful discussion about race in America, begin with an essential resource like Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. It “is not a history book. . . . At least, not like the ones you’re used to reading in school.”

A “remix” of Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the book begins by dividing racial thought into three categories—segregationist, assimilationist and anti-racist—and clarifying that a person can articulate thoughts from more than one category in the span of a day and can certainly change camps over the course of years or a lifetime. It then follows the trail of racist and anti-racist ideas as they have challenged each other across history, from the first-known written record of racist ideas in 15th-century Europe to the arrival of Europeans on North American shores, all the way through contemporary American society.

This may sound like an epic feat for a slim volume written for young readers—and it is. More than merely a young reader’s adaptation of Kendi’s landmark work, Stamped does a remarkable job of tying together disparate threads while briskly moving through its historical narrative. Employing his signature conversational tone, Reynolds selects key names to dwell on, revealing complex motivations behind their actions and diving fearlessly into their contradictions.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Go behind the scenes of Stamped with Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

This Book Is Anti-Racist
Once readers have been introduced to Stamped’s thorough overview of the history and modus operandi of racist and anti-racist thought, the next steps are self-reflection and action. Turn to This Book Is Anti-Racist, written by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurélia Durand. It’s a handbook for how to be an anti-racist in a racist world, with neatly organized sections that guide readers through its mix of theory and practice.

First, Jewell encourages readers to explore their own identities and to consider how we all “carry” history. Next, she offers a guide on preparing to act against racism, including strategies such as disruption, interruption, calling in and calling out. Finally, she invites readers to consider how to work in concert with others through allyship, spending privilege, self-care and more. At the end of each section, journaling and writing activities help to solidify and personalize the content.

Jewell uses a mixture of facts and personal anecdotes to illustrate each concept. Her text speaks directly to young people and acknowledges their limitations—as well as their great potential—in a world where many decisions are made by adults. She is honest about the discomfort and risks involved in taking action against racism and encourages readers to reflect and prepare before they do so.

Durand’s colorful artwork depicts wonderfully diverse groups of young people, and it combines with Jewell’s intentional use of inclusive language to provide a safe and inviting way for teen readers to reflect on the world’s issues and their place in solving them.

Two books confront the history of racism in America and provide a road map for teens to take action.

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